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I love Labradors, and let’s face it, you probably do, too. After all, it is one of the most popular breeds in the U.S. and other parts of the globe. As I said in my “Breed of the Week” article about Labs, they are the quintessential family pet – and that comes from the AKC! They are so beloved that they are also one of the most commonly chosen breeds for designer mixed breeds including the Afador, Bassador, Borador, Goldador, Cavador…well, you get the gist. They are commonly selected for cross breeding and traditional breeding because of their remarkable temperaments, personalities, sturdy good looks and intelligence.
Yes, you can get an ill-tempered and even unlikable Lab, but it is a really rare event.
Thus, my dismay when I read a bunch of recent headlines that can be summed up in this way: A Lab’s color is closely linked to how long they live and/or their level of risk in developing certain, serious, illnesses.
The study, “published in the open access journal Canine Genetics and Epidemiology” had a few points to make. Conducted in cooperation between The University of Sydney, Australia, in collaboration with the Royal Veterinary College, London, it found two very disturbing issues:
· “The most common health issues in Labrador retrievers over a one-year period were obesity, ear infections and joint conditions; and
· “The average life-span of Labrador retrievers was 12 years, but chocolate-colored Labradors showed a 10% shorter lifespan than black or yellow Labradors. We also found that ear infections and skin diseases were more common in chocolate Labradors than non-chocolate Labradors”
In other words, it is the chocolate colored Labs that seem to be at the highest risk for these issues, and the experts say it must be due to genetics. Explaining that the chocolate color is recessive in dogs (i.e. it has to be in both parents in order to get chocolate pups), it also means that the gene pool is shrunk, and this boosts the numbers of genes with those skin and ear issues.
Tens of thousands of Labs were documented and studied, but an expanded range of subjects is going to be reviewed by the Australian researchers. Their goal is to look at links between a dog’s fur color and risk for earlier death and disease (in multiple breeds and not only Labradors). The goal is to help veterinarians and even breeders to make far more strategic decisions and take smarter steps in order to address these obvious health issues in the breed.
As one of the researchers explained, “The results can alert prospective owners to potential health issues and inform breed-specific wellness checks.”
Here’s the thing, as someone who might already own a Lab (whether it is a chocolate, yellow or black Lab), or someone considering adopting this awesome breed, you might wonder what to do with the information I just presented. There are a few things to do with it:
· Remember that I always advise anyone about to a adopt any sort of purebred dog to keep in mind that any dog has the potential for genetically inherited issues, including skin issues and health problems. Steer clear of any breeder who says they will not offer a health guarantee on your pup or who insists that their pups are 100% healthy without any health risks. It is only the most honest and reputable breeders that are happy to discuss concerns and even the instances of issues in their lines.
Not all issues are detectable until a pup is well along in the growth cycle, but a good breeder will produce independent certifications that the parents were at least pre-screened for the most relevant defects.
Where individual dogs (including Labs) are concerned, they have to meet specific guidelines before inclusion in the CHIC (Canine Health Information Center) database. The Labrador Retriever Club, Inc. (the official breed club recognized by the AKC), says that any Lab will require “OFA hips OFA Elbows annual eye exams (OFA) and EIC testing (exercise induced collapse). Recommended additional tests are tests for CNM (centronuclear myopathy, prcd testing for PRA progressive retinal atrophy and testing for the dilute gene. Many of our club members also choose to have cardiac examination performed and do thyroid testing.”
So, only adopt from breeders that screen for elbow/hip dysplasia, heart issues, muscle weakness, and eye conditions, as well as EIC. Current DNA testing does allow breeders to identify any potential carriers and to plan optimal breeding that avoids or disallows reproducing of genetic conditions.
· Understand how to deal with the most common issues, like skin conditions, allergies and so on. Experts say that many of a Lab’s skin issues relate to common diseases like hypothyroidism, which may need hormones to control; light responsive alopecia that cannot be overcome and is simply a pattern of hair loss; seborrhea is a very treatable problem that causes too much sebum in the skin and can be addressed with antibiotics and medicated shampoos; atopic dermatitis is basically an overreaction to allergens and must be addressed with ongoing tactics like washing bedding and vacuuming as well as being aware of seasonal conditions; and pyoderma is a bacterial infection of the skin that is treated with antibiotics but which might also require the removal of lesions that cause non-stop itching and digging on the skin.
· Know about allergies in labs and what signs or symptoms may indicate that the dog has inherited such a problem. As one expert in Labs said, “Such conditions are usually treated easily, and knowing how to recognize the signs of allergies in your Labrador Retriever and how to treat them can greatly enhance their quality of life.”
Allergies are when a dog’s immune system overreacts to substances as diverse as chemicals, food, pollen, bacteria and plain, old-fashioned dust. As I noted above, ongoing cleaning (hot water washing of bedding and vacuuming with a strong HEPA filter unit) can help, but it is not the only way allergies are triggered. Your Lab might have inhalant and flea allergies as well as food allergies.
Food allergies can be triggered by common ingredients and around 10% of allergy issues in dogs relate to food. They cause itchiness in the muzzle, ear infections, skin issues, hair loss and bowel problems. Antibiotics are often needed to reduce some symptoms, but it is only through elimination diets that a dog’s allergies can be detected and controlled. Because of the frequency of allergies in Labs, you may want to feed your puppo a hypoallergenic diet right from the start. These are free of the most common triggers, including soy, fish, wheat, eggs, and certain meats. If you are unsure of allergens, eliminate one ingredient for a week or two to see if the issues fade. If so, keep the Lab’s diet free of that ingredient moving forward. Many Labs enjoy raw diets or limited ingredient diets as a way to erase allergies.
Flea allergies are a real bummer and account for the most frequent skin issues in Labs. The dogs are allergic to the flea saliva and will show signs of heavily irritated skin, lots of inflammation, biting and hot spots. It happens often around the tail and can be addressed through regular grooming, topical flea preventatives, and ongoing housekeeping that reduces the risks of fleas reproducing in the home, including sweeping and cleaning floors, spraying carpets and furnishings, and so on.
Contact allergies are also a major cause of Lab’s allergic reactions and it is possible for a dog to react to “dyes, carpet deodorizers, or antibiotics applied to the skin. Rubber, wool, certain metals (like nickel), poison ivy sap, and salt on the road” among other materials. Symptoms will usually include rashes on bare skin (such as nose, belly, paws, and so on). To treat it means identifying it, which you will have to do on your own or via a vet’s testing. Once allergens are identified, it is necessary to permanently remove that material from the home to prevent future contact. You may also want to do regular baths with a hypoallergenic shampoo and consider keeping an animal-safe antihistamine on hand (a vet can provide one).
Atopic allergies are inhaled allergens and may include seasonal pollen and mold as well as dust. It happens often with Labs during spring and summer and manifests as serious itchiness all over the body. Hair loss and red skin, yeast infections and sores can occur and so you’ll have to get a dog tested for allergens by the vet and then get seasonal allergy shots as well as keeping anti-inflammatory agents (such as dog-safe corticosteroids and antihistamines) on hand. you can also use hypoallergenic baths to reduce itchiness and other symptoms.
· Know how to identify and deal with ear infections – In addition to the skin infections noted as common in chocolate labs, it is important to also understand how to recognize ear infections and treat those (even prevent them), too. The good news is that they are common concerns and owners over many generations have learned how to keep this issue in check.
One of the reasons that Labs are frequent sufferers of ear infections is that their ears are not well designed to combat the issue, plus the dogs love water. This is a lethal blend as it means water gets in, air does not, ear flaps trap the heat inside, and germs thrive.
You can reduce risks of infections, mites and other ear issues by allowing the dog’s ears to get good air circulation through regular cleaning and drying. To do this, moisten a cotton ball with ear cleaner and wipe only around the opening of the canal – never poke anything into the canal. Wipe dry with a clean cloth and do a quick visual inspection. If you see signs of mites, redness and irritation or detect anything that seems abnormal head to the vet.
Check a Lab’s ears on a very regular basis, such as every few days, since these problems can occur and worsen very quickly.
· Understand that Labs are prone to obesity and joint conditions, too. One of the most universal concerns in Labs is their tendency to be overweight. Though they are outdoorsy guys, they are also prone to couch potato tendencies and they like their kibble. Yet, as medical experts warn, “Obesity is a huge health problem with Labs. But Labs aren’t going to put themselves on the road to a healthy weight…It’s up to us to embrace a better diet for them and encourage them to exercise more.” And this is actually quite helpful where their joint conditions are concerned. After all, some of the most commonly recommended activities are actually low impact and include games of fetch, long and brisk walks, and some basic agility training. By exercising and keeping a dog at a good weight, you reduce the impact of the avoidable and inherited joint issues. It is impossible to skirt such things as dysplasia as it is inherited, and arthritis can develop in any dog, but with medications, supplements, a good weight and frequent movement, even degenerative issues can be slowed, and the dog kept happy.
I honestly hated to see that chocolate Labs face significantly shorter lives and an increased risk for health issues. However, that is something that can occur whenever selective breeding is done in any species. You don’t have to just assume that your Lab is going to succumb to these issues, and I hope I have shown you how to remain alert to the most treatable concerns and understand what you can do if you are about to adopt a pup. Responsible breeders would never condemn a dog to a short and unhealthy life, and most will be glad to begin using this information to more carefully pair up parents and offer loving owners dogs that can remain happy and healthy for a very long time.