It's not hard to understand why the Labrador retriever has been the most popular dog breed in the United States for many years running. Topping a long list of the lovable Lab's virtues are a sunny disposition, keen intelligence and boundless enthusiasm for any and all romps on land or in water. All purebred dogs have breed-specific health problems, but Labs have more than their share. Before finalizing your Lab adoption, investigate the scores of the puppy's direct ancestors for established health threats and consider DNA testing for more recently discovered genetic diseases.
Hip and Elbow Dysplasia
Labs are among breeds at greatest risk for hip dysplasia, caused by poor hip joint formation, as well as for elbow dysplasia, a similar front-leg lameness. According to Baker Institute for Animal Health at Cornell University, more than one gene is implicated in the development of this painful disease; environment also appears to play a role. Symptoms typically start to appear in dogs age 4 months to 1 year and may range from barely noticeable to disabling. Science doesn't yet have all the answers, but current thinking is that hip dysplasia may be the most obvious manifestation of a disease process affecting all joints.
Obesity Feeds Other Health Threats
Lab owners never have to ring the dinner bell twice, but this breed's voracious appetite, combined with the predisposition to pack on body fat, can aggravate other congenital susceptibilities. Labs are also predisposed to hypothyroidism -- underactive thyroid glands -- which slows metabolism, further encouraging flab. Increased risk for diabetes and heart disease are two more risks of overfeeding a Lab. In the absence of food, Labs will forage for inedible items to scarf down. They don't have picky tastes -- they really will eat the kids' homework, as well as cell phones, laundry basket contents and any other items unwisely left within reach.
Other Hereditary Conditions Affecting Labs
Though cancer is common among all breeds, Labs are over-represented in the statistics, with usual age of onset in middle or senior years. A disproportionate number of Labs suffer from epilepsy, which tends to strike between 6 months and 5 years of age. The breed is prone to itchy skin allergies and eye diseases, including cataracts and a group of conditions collectively known as progressive retinal atrophy that eventually lead to blindness. A mysterious condition called panosteitis, often compared to growing pains in children, may affect Labs between the ages of 5 months and 18 months. Recurring attacks last for one to three weeks, causing intense pain in leg bones. They're often accompanied by fever. The condition passes by adulthood.
Recently Identified Genetic Diseases
In 2005, French scientists discovered the genetic basis of a crippling and incurable condition affecting Labs, centronuclear myopathy, which causes progressive muscle atrophy. In CNM-afflicted dogs, the usual age of onset ranges between 2 months and 5 months. In 2008, a genetic test for another disabling condition called exercise-induced collapse beame available. Signs vary, depending on severity, but after five to 20 minutes of strenuous activity, EIC-affected dogs lose muscle coordination and fall over. Though the condition can be life-threatening, most dogs with EIC tolerate mild to moderate activity levels. Susan M. Taylor, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan's college of veterinary medicine who did much of the research on EIC, notes that 14 months is the average age of onset.
How to Do Health Background Checks
Any reputable breeder should be able to produce documents proving that the parents and grandparents of a puppy offered for adoption were screened for common health issues and certified fit to breed. The Canine Health Information Center database is accessible to anyone who wants to check scores on health tests performed on a puppy's parents and grandparents. Breeders are required by the Labrador Retriever Club, the AKC-associated breed parent club, to have these tests done and to allow the results, whether positive or negative, to be published. Testing scores a puppy's direct ancestors' genetic predispositions to hip and elbow dysplasia, eye diseases and exercise-induced collapse. Tests for CNM are optional.
- Modern Dog: The Labrador Retriever
- Vetstreet: Labrador Retriever
- DogChannel.com: What Are Labrador Health Issues?
- Dog DNA: Labrador Retriever
- American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation: Exercise Induced Collapse
- Mercola.com: Healthy Pets: Your Dog Has Hypothyroidism - or Does She?
- Veterinary Surgical Centers: What Is Epilepsy?
- American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation: Progressive Retinal Atrophy
- Veterinary Partner: The Pet Health Library: Panosteitis: Growing Pains in Dogs
- The Labrador Retriever Club, Inc.
- University of Saskatchewan: Exercise Induced Collapse in Labrador Retrievers
- University of Minnesota: Exercise Induced Collapse in Labrador Retrievers and Related Breeds
- Canine Health Information Center: Labrador Retriever
- CNM Online
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: Baker Institute for Animal Health: Canine Hip Dysplasia
- vjaksic/iStock/Getty Images