Common health problems with Labrador Retrievers

9 April 2024 - 6 min read
Labrador Retriever with two arrows pointing to its hip and elbow

Anyone lucky enough to have a Labrador Retriever, affectionately known as a "Lab," understands they're not just pets—they're cherished, highly trainable, and loyal family members.

With their well-known friendly disposition and boundless energy, it's easy to see why Labs have become one of the most beloved breeds worldwide.

Whether you're considering adding a purebred lab to your family or you're looking to enhance your current lab's health and longevity through preventative care, it's important to be aware of some common health issues that affect the breed.

A quick reminder before we delve deeper: each dog is an individual with unique needs. If you have any concerns about your lab's health, ask your vet first. They can offer advice tailored specifically to your pup.

The most common Labrador Retriever health issues

Elbow dysplasia

lab

This is a condition where the bones forming the elbow joint grow abnormally and don't fit together optimally. This leads to unnatural loads being placed through the joint, causing inflammation and pain. The condition is inherited.

Symptoms can develop from as young as five months. It can include lameness in one or both front legs, often worsening with exercise. Our article on elbow dysplasia discusses it in more detail

Some dogs develop symptoms later in life due to arthritis. A veterinarian is required to diagnose this disease, and treatment usually consists of: 

  • Exercise restriction

  • Weight management

  • Anti-inflammatory medication 

  • Physiotherapy

Sometimes, vets may recommend surgery. 

Laryngeal paralysis

A condition in which nerves supplying particular muscles in the larynx (voice box) get damaged. It results in partial collapse of the airways during breathing. The cause is usually unknown. But it can be due to trauma, tumours or age (middle-aged and older dogs are most commonly affected). 

Symptoms include:

  • An altered bark

  • Exercise intolerance

  • Coughing after drinking or vigorous activity

Severe or sudden cases can lead to respiratory distress, so veterinary advice is crucial. 

Whilst vets may prescribe medication in the early course of the disease, surgery is almost always required to treat it.

Obesity

lab

About a quarter of Labradors carry a mutation in the POMC gene, causing them to feel hungrier and burn fewer calories at rest. Over-feeding and inadequate exercise will lead to weight gain, like any breed. But Labradors are at risk, especially if they have mobility issues like elbow dysplasia.

As obesity can also increase the risk of other health conditions like arthritis, diabetes and laryngeal paralysis, it is essential to prevent it. Feeding a calorie-controlled diet, restricting treats and providing adequate exercise will all go towards maintaining a healthy weight.

Progressive retinal atrophy

lab

It's a gene mutation that causes cells at the back of both eyes (retina) to degenerate slowly. Dogs affected with the condition slowly lose their vision and eventually become blind. Blindness usually happens before five years of age. 

But the gradual nature of the disease means dogs adapt very well. If your dog appears to have poor vision in low light, bumps into objects, or if you notice any changes to their eyes, seek veterinary advice.

While the condition isn't treatable, proper diagnosis is essential to stop affected dogs from being used for breeding. Fortunately, the disease doesn't stop dogs from leading happy and healthy lives.

Hip dysplasia

lab

The condition occurs when the soft tissue structures supporting the hip joint are too loose, causing instability. The condition is inherited, but overfed puppies are more likely to develop it.

Stiffness, limping, and exercise intolerance are common symptoms and begin at six-12 months. The affected hip is usually painful and less flexible when examined by a vet.

Vets usually use X-rays for diagnosis and may recommend surgery if the condition is detected early. But most dogs will improve with medication and rest, followed by a controlled exercise regime, weight control and physiotherapy.

Our hip dysplasia guide discusses more.

How to care for a Labrador Retriever

small chocolate labrador retriever puppy combats itching by scratching with its hind leg

Genetic testing and screening

Labradors are prone to several inherited conditions, so screening tests are essential. Vets can use genetic tests to diagnose PRA and help to identify those dogs with a faulty gene involved in obesity.

Conditions like laryngeal paralysis and elbow/hip dysplasia are diagnosed by a vet, through a physical examination and various imaging techniques. 

You shouldn't use dogs diagnosed with an inherited disease for breeding to reduce the chance of passing this disease on to their offspring. It's why choosing a responsible breeder is essential.

Managing the environment if they have PRA

As discussed earlier, you cannot prevent PRA, and it'll eventually lead to blindness.

But certain measures can be taken to make this transition easier. Using artificial light sources in the house, walking mainly during daylight hours and avoiding rearranging furniture are some ways to support a dog with poorer eyesight. 

You can reduce the likelihood of growing dogs with elbow or hip dysplasia from going on to develop clinical disease through a calorie-controlled diet and regular (but not excessive) exercise. 

Supplementation

Adding omega-3 fish oils and joint supplements to your dog’s diet will support healthy joint development. 

Our guide has you covered for everything to do with supplements.

Exercise and weight management

Labradors are one of the breeds most prone to obesity, and given the added stress excess weight can place on their joints, maintaining a healthy weight is critical for their long-term health. 

As well as ensuring at least 90% of your dog’s caloric intake comes from nutritionally balanced dog food, you can prevent obesity can also be prevented by minimising treats and providing your dog with adequate exercise.

Working with your vet to form a tailored weight loss plan and using tools like body condition scoring to track your dog’s progress can make maintaining a healthy weight easier.

Whilst laryngeal paralysis cannot usually be prevented, symptoms can be lessened by avoiding strenuous exercise, especially in hot weather. 

Other health concerns in Labs

An elderly Labrador

While hip dysplasia, obesity, cataracts, and bloat are among the top concerns for Labrador retrievers, the breed can also be prone to other health issues:

Ear infections: Due to their floppy ears, Labradors are susceptible to ear infections, which can be managed with regular cleaning and monitoring.

Heart disease: Labradors can be affected by various heart conditions, including tricuspid valve dysplasia and myocardial diseases, emphasising the need for regular veterinary check-ups.

Skin conditions: Allergies and sensitivities can lead to skin problems for Labradors, requiring dietary adjustments and careful grooming.

Remember, regular veterinary visits, a healthy lifestyle, and a strong focus on preventative care (with vaccinations) can help mitigate the risk that your dog develops these conditions.

What do most Lab dogs die from?

Many people think that cancer is the biggest reason why Labrador Retrievers pass away. But, interestingly, recent studies tell us a different story.

Research done by VetCompass™, in partnership with the Royal Veterinary College and the University of Sydney, looked at over 33,000 labs in the UK. They found that problems with bones and joints, like degenerative joint disease, are actually the most common reasons these dogs die, being responsible for about 24.5% of deaths.

While an arthritis diagnosis might not sound quite as serious as a cancer diagnosis, the truth is that musculoskeletal disorders can reduce mobility, increase the risk of secondary health issues like obesity, and severely impact your dog's overall quality of life.

Final thoughts

Embracing the responsibility of a Labrador's health means taking proactive steps, and this is where Lab insurance can be invaluable.

Pet insurance is designed to alleviate the financial stress associated with unexpected accidents and illnesses, ensuring you're prepared to provide the best care for your furry friend without the burden of unforeseen costs.

A person high fiving a dog

Get £15,000 lifetime vet fee cover with our Complete policy.

A person high fiving a dog

Leanna Zeibak
Content Manager

Leanna Zeibak is a Content Manager at ManyPets. In her spare time, she paints pet portraits and bakes far too many chocolate chip cookies.