9 Common Labrador Retriever Health Issues and Their Treatments

Written by Dr. Marcelle Landestoy, DVM

Labrador Retriever on a garden

According to the American Kennel Club, Labrador Retrievers have been the most common dogs in the US since 1991, and it’s easy to see why.

They’re affectionate, loyal, and super energetic. However, like any other breed, they’re prone to some annoying health issues. 

The most common Labrador Retriever health issues are related to bones, namely hip dysplasia and osteochondritis dissecans. Also, because Labs love eating, they’re prone to obesity and bloat. And after a strenuous workout, your Lab may experience exercise-induced collapse and limp tail. 

If you’re wondering how you can diagnose any of the previous diseases, keep reading.

As a licensed veterinary doctor, I’ll explain how each disease develops, what are the symptoms you should look for, and how your vet will likely treat the condition. 

Top Labrador Retriever Health Issues


Hip Dysplasia

As your dog grows bigger, his hip bone may grow faster than his thigh bones, resulting in loose hip joints.

This looseness not only disrupts your puppy’s movement but also irritates the bones, making them more prone to progressive wear.

This condition is known as hip dysplasia. 

In essence, hip dysplasia is a genetic disease — the American Kennel Club says that Labrador Retrievers are born with genes that can derail the growth rate

But genetics isn’t the only risk factor here. Anything that puts excessive stress on your dog’s joints can make them more likely to develop hip dysplasia — beware of things like obesity and too much exercise. 

Symptoms

In severe cases, your dog may start having pain and abnormal gait at four months of age.

X rays

On the other hand, mild cases may not reveal any symptoms until after the dog matures. 

In either case, the following symptoms may suggest that your dog has hip dysplasia:

  • Decreased activity
  • Restricted range of motion
  • Difficulty jumping, running, or climbing stairs
  • Lameness in the affected joints
  • Bunny-hopping gait
  • Joint grating
  • Pain
  • Joint stiffness

Keep in mind that hip dysplasia worsens with time; consult your vet as soon as you can.

Here’s a video showing a Rottweiler with hip dysplasia in the left hip:

Diagnosis and Treatment

Vets usually discover hip dysplasia in routine check-ups. They’ll move your dog’s legs in a certain way to look for looseness or grating.

If anything seems off during the physical exam, your vet will request x-rays and blood tests to confirm the diagnosis. 

When it comes to treatment, your vet will prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs and joint supplements to prevent the irritation from damaging your dog’s bones.

In addition to medications, your vet will suggest lifestyle modifications to reduce joint stress, such as weight reduction and physical therapy. 

If your dog’s case remains bad despite all efforts, surgery will be the only solution.

A veterinary surgeon may reshape your dog’s bones to make them fit better. Still, extreme cases will require complete joint replacement. 

Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD)

Osteochondritis Dissecans, or OCD in short, is another growth abnormality that may affect your dog between four and eight months of age. 

The problem starts at the cartilage lying at the ends of your dog’s bones. If that cartilage grows too quickly, it’ll cut off its own circulation. 

Without nutrients, that cartilage may start to crack. And with time, it may also flake off and float freely inside the joint, which will prevent the bones from sliding smoothly against each other. 

According to Iowa State University, Labrador Retrievers have a high risk of developing OCD at the elbow and hock joints.

However, it can affect any joint with a history of an accident. 

Symptoms

  • Swelling at the affected joints
  • Lameness that worsens after exercise
  • Favoring one leg while walking
  • Pain with movement and to touch 
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Joint grating 

If you think your dog has OCD, it’s better to consult your vet promptly since there’s a high risk of permanent lameness.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Just like hip dysplasia, OCD is first suspected via physical examination.

Your vet will need x-rays to evaluate the bones’ condition and determine if there’s any loose cartilage. 

In dogs younger than six months, x-rays might not show enough details.

In these cases, your vet may use an arthroscope to examine your dog’s joints.

After confirming the diagnosis, your vet will prescribe joint supplements and anti-inflammatory drugs to encourage the cartilage to heal up.

If the case is still mild, those medications will probably be enough. 

On the other hand, if cartilage bits are floating inside your dog’s joints, the vet will have to remove them surgically.

But don’t worry, that surgery is relatively simple, and almost all dogs lead a happy life after resting for a couple of weeks. 

Labrador Retriever running on a river

Bloat (Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus)

Labrador Retrievers seem to have the most voracious appetites of all breeds, which is why they usually hork down their food once you fill up their bowls.

But if you serve one large meal instead of two or three smaller ones, you might be exposing your pet to a severe condition known as bloat.

Bloat happens when your dog’s stomach fills up with too much food and gas.

As it enlarges, it puts pressure on the surrounding blood vessels, increasing the risk of collapse and organ failure. 

In extreme cases, the stomach may even twist on itself, closing both the entrance and exit.

That twisting will trap more gas and worsen the condition faster. 

Symptoms

  • Enlarged abdomen
  • Dry retching (trying to vomit, but nothing comes out)
  • Pacing and restlessness
  • Drooling
  • Lying in a praying position (legs drawn forward)
  • Heavy breathing
  • Rapid pulse rate
  • Pale gums
  • Collapse

If your dog starts showing any of the previous symptoms within three hours after finishing his meal, take him to the nearest vet.

Remember, bloat is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate veterinary care.  

Here’s a video showing what a distended abdomen looks like:

Diagnosis and Treatment

If your dog arrives at the vet with an enlarged abdomen, the priority will be relieving that pressure. 

Your vet will first try to insert a tube down your dog’s throat and into the stomach, but that won’t work if the stomach has already twisted.

The second solution would be puncturing the skin and the stomach’s wall with a large needle. 

After stabilizing your dog’s condition, your vet will take x-rays to see if the stomach is twisted.

If so, they’ll perform surgery to untwist it and remove any dead tissues. 

Obesity

As I said earlier, Labrador Retrievers love food. Without a proper diet plan, they’ll have a high risk of becoming obese. 

Not only does obesity make your dog lazier, but it may also shorten his life expectancy by a couple of years, according to Kansas State University. 

Symptoms

You can evaluate your dog’s weight through the following steps:

  1. Slide your hand along your dog’s sides. You should feel the faint outlines of the ribs and hipbones. If you have to push too deep to find them, your dog is probably overweight. 
  1. Look at your dog’s belly from the side. It should appear tucked up, forming a nicely curved waist. A bulging belly is a sign of obesity. 
  1. Inspect the base of your dog’s tail. If you can spot apparent fat masses there, your dog is probably obese. 

Check the following video for a hands-on explanation of the previous signs:

Keep in mind that you shouldn’t diagnose obesity yourself. You must consult your vet if you think your dog has put on too much weight.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your vet will weigh your dog and compare the reading to the breed’s standard to determine if he’s overweight. 

Afterward, the vet may use the same visual assessments I explained earlier to evaluate your dog’s body condition score (BCS), which should make it easier to come up with a suitable diet plan. 

In addition to the diet changes, you’ll need to increase your dog’s activity level to help him lose weight.

But first, your vet will have to check for obesity-related conditions like heart disease and arthritis, which might worsen with physical exercise. 

Exercise-Induced Collapse (EIC) 

Exercise-induced collapse, or EIC, is a genetic condition that commonly affects Labrador Retrievers between 5 months and one year of age. 

Dogs that have this condition will lose muscle control after intense workouts that last longer than 20 minutes.

Still, they’ll appear utterly normal at rest. 

Symptoms

After strenuous exercise, your dog may show the following symptoms:

  • Mild fever
  • Rapid pulse rate
  • Weak hind legs
  • Collapse

If you notice that your dog is suddenly dragging his hind legs, allow him to rest in a shaded place, and then take him to the vet. 

Here’s a video of a dog experiencing EIC:

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing EIC can be somewhat challenging because exercise intolerance can be caused by problems in the heart, lungs, and bones. 

Your vet will perform some physical tests and request blood work to rule out other conditions.

If nothing comes up, they’ll suspect EIC. Afterward, they’ll need a DNA test to see if your dog has the gene responsible for EIC — that’s the only way to confirm the diagnosis.

Sadly, EIC is untreatable. You’ll have to avoid engaging your dog in extreme workouts and vigorous competitions.  

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

As you might recall from high school, the retina is the rearmost part of the eyes.

It’s rich in tiny receptors that can transform light into electrical signals that the brain can understand. 

In dogs suffering from progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), the retina degenerates with time, which causes gradual vision loss. 

Because PRA is a genetic condition, your dog will be at higher risk if his parents had it.

According to Cornell University, Labrador Retrievers are among the common breeds affected by this condition

Symptoms

The following symptoms may appear between 3 and 9 years of age: 

  • Rapid loss of night vision, followed by the daytime vision
  • Cloudy eyes 
  • Reluctance to go down the stairs
  • Repetitive bumping into walls 
  • Dilated pupils
  • Cataracts

Diagnosis and Treatment

First, your vet will use a flashlight to evaluate your dog’s reflexes.

If they’re too sluggish, that might be indicative of PRA.

To reach a definite diagnosis, you’ll need to consult a veterinary ophthalmologist (eye doctor) who can examine the retina with an ophthalmoscope

Labrador Retriever close up face

There’s a more advanced test known as electroretinogram (ERG), which measures the retina’s electrical signals.

It’s the most accurate test, but it may not be available in small cities. 

Unfortunately, PRA is untreatable, and most cases progress into total blindness with age.

Dead Tail (Acute Caudal Myopathy)

Dead tail, also known as limber and cold tail, is a common condition affecting Labrador Retrievers and other active breeds.

As the name implies, dogs affected with this condition will suddenly stop wagging their tails. 

This condition usually happens after long walks in cold weather, swimming for too long, and spending too much time in a crate.

All these incidents will strain your dog’s tail muscles, causing it to become flaccid.

Symptoms

  • A completely limp tail that drops vertically right from the base
  • A partially limp tail that drops vertically about 10 cm away from the base
  • Pain when you try to move the tail 
  • Reluctance to play
  • Licking or chewing at the tail

Here’s a video of a Labrador Retriever with a completely limp tail:

Diagnosis and Treatment

Any vet will instantly diagnose a dead tail by a simple physical examination.

However, your vet may perform other tests to rule out conditions like: 

  • Tail fracture
  • Intervertebral disk disease 
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Inflammation of the anal glands
  • Prostate disease

Since overworked muscles cause a dead tail, it doesn’t require any treatment — just let your dog rest for a while, and he’ll wag his tail again after a couple of days at most. 

If the pain is too severe that your dog keeps whining, your vet will prescribe some pain medications to keep him comfortable. 

Ear Infections

The floppy ears of Labrador Retrievers can easily trap wax, debris, and most importantly, moisture.

These conditions can encourage bacteria and yeast to grow inside the ears, causing inflammation and pain.  

Symptoms

  • Head shaking or tilting
  • Brown or yellow discharge coming from one or both ears
  • Foul odor
  • Redness or swelling
  • Crusted skin on the ear flap

If the case is left untreated for a long time, the following symptoms may develop:

  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of hearing
  • Walking in circleS
  • Loss of hair around the ear  

Keep in mind that the infection can travel deep inside the ears if not treated early, which can cause permanent hearing loss.

So visit your vet as soon as you can.

Diagnosis and Treatment

After performing the routine physical exam, your vet will use an otoscope to look inside your dog’s ear and evaluate the inflammation. 

Then, they’ll take a swab or a biopsy and send it for lab examination to identify the fungi or bacteria causing that inflammation, which should help determine the ideal treatment. 

If your dog can endure the pain, the vet will cleanse his ears in the clinic with a special solution.

Otherwise, you’ll have to do it yourself at home — watch this video to learn how:

Cataracts

A dog’s cataract is similar to that of humans — it’s a cloudy film that forms on the eye’s lens, which prevents the light from reaching the retina (where the image transforms into electrical signals). 

According to the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois, cataracts mostly develop due to abnormal genes.

They’re pretty common among Labrador Retrievers.

It’s worth noting that cataracts can also arise due to other diseases, such as diabetes. But thankfully, diabetes isn’t a common condition for Labs. 

Symptoms

In addition to the cloudy eyes, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Bumping into walls or furniture
  • Barking at inanimate objects
  • Difficulty finding toys
  • Walking with the nose pointed to the ground

Here’s a video showing what a cloudy eye looks like:

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your vet will use a flashlight to test your dog’s reaction to light — a sluggish response will indicate the presence of a cataract.

Your vet may also request blood work to see if your dog has diabetes or any other conditions that may have encouraged cataract formation. 

If the cataract is so small that it hasn’t affected your dog’s behavior, they will require no treatment. 

Large cataracts have only one treatment — surgery. Your vet will remove the cloudy lens and replace it with a plastic or acrylic replacement. 

Final Thoughts

Of the nine health issues I discussed in this list, six are related to genetics.

So, if you’re planning to get a Lab puppy soon, search for a reputable breeder who regularly scans the breeding stock for genetic diseases. 

Also, ask the breeder to show you the parents of the dog you’re planning to get.

If something feels off, it’s better to err on the side of caution and consider another puppy or breeder. 

Labrador Retriever dizzy

Sources

  • American College of Veterinary Surgeons: Canine Hip Dysplasia 
  • The College of Veterinary Medicine at Illinois: Solutions for Hip Dysplasia in Dogs
  • American Kennel Club: Hip Dysplasia in Dogs
  • VCA Animal Hospitals: Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) in Dogs
  • American College of Veterinary Surgeons: Osteochondrosis of the Shoulder
  • American College of Veterinary Surgeons: Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus
  • WebMD for Pets: Dog Bloat: How to Protect Your Pup
  • Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Pet Obesity
  • PetMD: Obesity in Dogs
  • VCA Animals Hospitals: Obesity in Dogs
  • College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota: Exercise-Induced Collapse 
  • Wikipedia: Exercise-induced Collapse
  • Wikipedia: Progressive Retinal Atrophy
  • VCA Animal Hospitals: Progressive Retinal Atrophy in Dogs
  • Wikipedia: Limber Tail Syndrome
  • American Animal Hospital Association: What Is Limber Tail in Dogs?
  • VCA Animal Hospitals: Ear Infections in Dogs (Otitis Externa)
  • VCA Animal Hospitals: Cataracts in Dog

Read more about the Labrador Retriever on my complete breed guide

Marcelle Landestoy

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