Q. My husband and I are thinking about adopting a Labrador Retriever puppy. Are there any genetic health issues specific to the Lab that we should be aware of?
A. Even though I am a proponent of adopting mixed-breed dogs (read: mutts), there always will be a need for responsible purebred dog owners.
In general terms, be aware that purebred dogs have more than their share of genetic problems, while mixed-breed dogs benefit from “hybrid vigor,” which is the genetic advantage of selecting for advantageous genes over several generations of different breeds intermixing.
You can research dog breed genetic issues through many resources, including this website, and organizations such as the American Kennel Club (www.akc.org).
Now, on to your specific question about Labrador Retrievers. You may not have heard this before, but Labs have a propensity for unique cardiac qualities. Although a veterinary cardiologist might not appreciate this uniqueness, you, as a Lab owner, will. Simply put, Labrador Retrievers appear to have hearts that are too big for their chests: they will love you, and your family, to death. They also will demonstrate a perseverance that is astounding, whether it is tirelessly searching for a missing child or endlessly chasing a tennis ball until it is gummed into a soggy globe of fuzz. Their loyalty is unending and infinite.
Yes, Labs do have their problems. Hip dysplasia is the primary one, but insisting on parents that have certified hips can go a long way toward minimizing this problem. Hips are certified by taking pelvic X-rays at about 2 years of age to make sure the femurs are well-seated in the hip sockets. Through responsible breeding, the incidence of hip dysplasia in purebred dogs is decreasing. Dogs with severe hip dysplasia are being successfully treated with total hip replacements.
Unfortunately, Labrador Retrievers are also prone to skin allergies, which can drive them – and their owners – crazy with nocturnal itching and scratching. Multiple, possibly expensive, treatments may be required, including allergy shots. Once again, check the medical history of the puppy’s father.
Cancer is the leading cause of natural death in dogs, and Labs get more than their share. Because cancer is usually a disease of older dogs, and because early detection and treatment have improved significantly, this should not be a deterrent. Most Labs can live a full life of swimming, stick-chasing and treat-induced drooling before they succumb to a life-ending disease like cancer.
Taken in balance, you cannot go wrong with a Labrador Retriever. Check out the medical history of the parents, and make sure the breeder has a good reputation. Check out other dogs that the breeder has sold.
In the meantime, brace yourselves for lots of love. All you need is some good dog food, a few tennis balls, maybe a lake, and, of course, a good veterinarian.
Good luck, and thank you for your question.