Feeding The Labrador Retriever

Nutrition tips for Labs in all walks of life.

"Feed me, please." Hungry dog by Shutterstock

It’s been said that food and water are the two most important items in a dogs life. Proper nutrition — including a balanced proportion of vitamins, minerals, fats, protein and carbohydrates — promotes growth, good health and the ability to fight illness. A Lab that eats a high-quality, balanced diet and drinks plenty of fresh water is usually a very healthy dog.

All dogs need a proper diet, but there are times when nutritional needs vary slightly. For example, to maintain peak energy, a highly active competitor may need a diet higher in fat than an adult nonworking dog. The following are thoughts and ideas from experts that can help you provide your Lab — whether the dog is a companion, show dog or active competitor — with an appropriate, nutritious diet.

Feeding The Companion

The pet Labs nutritional needs are the same as any canine companion. A daily dose of a complete-and-balanced diet full of nutrients, along with an ample ration of water, will do the trick of keeping a companion Lab a healthy best friend.

Most Labs bring to the dinner table an appetite that’s beyond compare. Labs love to eat. And eat they will. As much of anything that an owner allows. As Mary Weist, a breeder, AKC conformation judge and president of the National Labrador Retriever Club, says, “Labs are walking stomachs. If a Labrador doesn’t eat, it’s sick.”

Labs are known as easy keepers, which means they can quickly gain weight, even become obese, if owners aren’t careful. The Lab appetite is so hearty that it’s difficult to keep weight on target, no matter what the dog is doing — sitting fireside, trotting around the show ring or competing in the field.

“Labradors like to eat and therefore will become obese if overfed,” says Autumn Davidson, DVM, National Labrador Retriever Club medical advisor, diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, and associate clinical professor, school of veterinary medicine, University of California at Davis.

In addition to a hearty appetite, many Labs have a genetic tendency toward putting on pounds. Dottie LaFlamme, DVM, veterinary nutritionist and Ralston Purina research fellow, says, “One of the very special things about Labs is many of them are predisposed to being a little heavy. So, it’s really important for the general health of all dogs that they not be overweight, but Labs especially because of a predisposition to hip dysplasia and other problems.”

It’s really helpful if you can keep them slim, right from the beginning when they’re puppies and throughout their lives, she says. And, the best way to do that is really just to do controlled feeding. They don’t need a special diet. Any good-quality food is fine. You probably want to avoid the really high fat diets, though. With that exception, any good-quality food is fine.

Contrary to popular belief, Labs do not have an increased breed tendency for hypothyroidism, Dr. Davidson says. This is an often overdiagnosed condition, she says.

Lab owners simply need to count calories. If the dog is fat, feed less and exercise more if possible. If owners cannot stand to feed less, they should use a low-calorie type of diet in an adult dog. The dogs ribs should not be visible but should be able to be felt without excessive fat padding if the weight is correct.

The Labs penchant for eating, coupled with a tendency to be heavy, means pet owners must be diligent. Don’t overfeed the Lab, but do encourage activity and limit snacks. Avoid excessive treats and table scraps. A little bit is okay; it’s not going to hurt anybody, but in moderation, Dr. LaFlamme says.

Dr. LaFlamme strongly discourages free-feeding of adult Labs. Instead, feed a meal once or twice a day, she says. Pups should not be free-fed either, but fed in more frequent meals. Pups that are not free-fed might grow a little more slowly, Dr. LaFlamme says, but will eventually reach their destined height, weight and size. Labs should be fed to be slimmer than you’d expect them to be, Dr. LaFlamme says. So rather than roly-poly, cute puppies, they really should be kept slim.

Diligence will pay off, especially if owners heed the warnings early in the Labs life. Labradors do not have special nutritional needs compared to other dogs of similar size, Dr. Davidson says. The only exception is that they have been shown through scientific studies to have a lower incidence of genetically mediated orthopedic disorders if they are not obese during puppyhood and grow at a slower, more organized rate. Hence the recommendation for large-breed puppy foods for Lab pups from the ages of 8 to 12 weeks to 1 year or 1 1/2 years of age.

Generally, a commercially prepared, complete-and-balanced diet is best for the Labrador Retriever. Dry food is best suited to all Labradors, Dr. Davidson says. Canned food should really only be used as an appetite enhancer. Labs do very well on an all-dry-food diet. Dr. Davidson recommends adding warm water to kibble 10 minutes before it is served to allow the kibble to expand and become more chewy before it is eaten, which lessens the chance for gastric dilatation or bloat. This also diminishes the tendency for vomiting after eating rapidly, as most Labs do, Dr. Davidson says.

How much food does the average pet Lab need? That varies with the individual, so Dr. LaFlamme recommends first reading the feeding instructions on the pet food label. You might start with what’s on the bag as a starting point, she says. But recognize that feeding instructions on the bag apply to all dogs of that size. Each dog is quite different. It may be necessary to increase the amount of food. More than likely, though, it will be necessary to decrease the food.

“I encourage pet owners or dog breeders to learn to do a body condition score, or a healthy hug, whichever term you prefer,” LaFlamme says. “Practice it routinely to monitor body weight and watch for excess body fat. The easiest way to observe is to basically feel over the dogs ribs. Because there should be just a little bit of fat over the ribs, but it shouldn’t be very thick. You should, with gentle pressure, be able to count the ribs. Just rub your hand over the ribs and feel each one individually. If you can’t feel very easily, that dogs too fat and you need to start cutting back on the food.”

The Lab should also have a waist, says Dr. LaFlamme, which means there should be a tuck behind the last rib; the lumbar area should be tucked in a little bit. The belly should be tucked up when you look at them from the side. Simply, observe the Lab for changes. If the dog is getting heavy, cut back on food. If it’s too thin, increase the amount.

That’s exactly how Weist feeds her Labs. Each day I look at them and decide how much food they’re going to get, she says. The amount of food depends upon the individual dog and the activities in which it is involved.

Next Steps

Theres nothing like the sight of a well-bred, handsome Lab making its way around the show ring. It appears strong, its eyes sparkle, its coat is dense, and it moves effortlessly. But as any breeder or handler will attest, a champion Lab doesn’t just happen. Its the product of careful breeding and continual care.

An essential part of that care is diet. Just like companion Labs, show Labs need a balanced diet. But there are really no nutritional secrets or magic concoctions to maintain show ring looks. Feed the show dog a high-quality, complete and balanced diet, and you’ve got a handsome and healthy dog. Show dogs are often fed nutritional supplements advertised as coat enhancers or conditioners, says Dr. Davidson. These are not necessary, and many of the top show dogs I know eat nothing but a high-quality kibble from a well-established, nationally known manufacturer.

The well-known dog food manufacturers do their homework, performing feeding trials in compliance with the group that determines feeding guidelines, the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and employing veterinary nutritionists. The most important ingredients for a healthy coat are a high quality, nutritionally complete diet, good genetics and flea control. The only additive I recommend is a dietary fatty acid supplement.

Dr. LaFlamme agrees that supplements are unnecessary. “If they’ve got a good diet — and we’re not talking any brands here — but there are several,” she says. “If they’ve got a good-quality commercial diet, they shouldn’t need any kind of supplement. It should all be in the diet. If they have to supplement it, then they probably don’t have a quality diet.”

Supplements aren’t necessary, but it is true that showing can be stressful to the Lab. In terms of diet, stress can mean a tendency toward gastrointestinal irritation, says Dr. LaFlamme. While a special diet isn’t in order, a diet that is easy to digest is. They’re probably going to need a diet that’s highly digestible, she says.

Another consideration for show Labs is somewhat controversial: weight. Says Dr. LaFlamme, Some show judges still tend to prefer overweight Labradors. They wouldn’t call them overweight. They would call them ideal. But in terms of probably their best health, and best skeletal health and conformation, they’re probably a bit pudgy. So, because of that, if you’re showing your dog, you may need to have a little extra conditioning on them.

Feeding The Competitor

The athletic and versatile Labrador Retriever can learn to do just about anything: field work, agility, Flyball, therapy work, obedience. In fact, the breed thrives on challenging activities. Feeding the highly active Lab isn’t much different than feeding a pet or conformation dog, but there are a few considerations owners must address when feeding the competitor.

The more active they are, the more calories they’re burning, says Dr. LaFlamme. Which means the active Lab needs a diet that supplies extra calories. The best way to get that is to feed a diet that’s higher in fat, she says. With a pet you probably want a fat content in the diet that’s somewhere around eight or 10 percent. With an active dog, you’re probably going to need 14 to up to 20 percent fat in the diet. So you want more fat in the diet to provide the energy they need.

Dr. Davidson suggests feeding a performance diet to supply the extra calories. Performance dogs may have a high caloric requirement, necessitating feeding a stress or performance version of dog food. Many of the well-known and respected dog food manufacturers provide these diets, which are higher in fat and protein.

Because performance diets are higher in protein than regular adult diets, some have come to believe that the active dog primarily needs extra protein, not calories. However, says Dr. La Flamme, because animals tend to eat to meet their energy needs, manufacturers of pet food and any nutritionist that’s formulating a diet, formulates all the nutrients in the diet in relation to the energy level. Because of that, diets that are high in energy are also high in protein. So when people say, You want to feed a high protein diet for the hard working dog, a little bit is because they have slightly increased protein requirements. A lot of that is the fact that its also a high energy diet.

According to Dr. LaFlamme, there are misperceptions about diets high in protein. She notes that research shows protein is not detrimental to the kidneys, for example there’s no reason to be concerned about higher protein diets for normal, healthy dogs. “The active competitor also needs a diet that digests well. High digestibility is going to be important because you want a lot of the food to be used,” says Dr. LaFlamme.

And, “you may want to provide snacks during the day,” she suggests. “Dogs that are going to use the carbohydrates out of their body, if you give them a snack right after they finish exercising, it helps replenish the glycogen. And that may give them a little extra edge, especially if they’re doing really hard work.”

In addition, keep the active Lab hydrated by giving water throughout the day. However, do not allow the dog to drink large quantities before or right after exercise. Finally, multiple small meals are best, but do not feed within 1 1/2 to 2 hours of exercise.

How can owners really be sure a Lab is receiving appropriate nutrition? Simply take a good look. You’ll see a muscular body, trim waist, thick, shiny coat, and perhaps above all, an alert twinkle in those beautiful Lab eyes.

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