What to Know About Labrador Retrievers

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen Claussen, DVM on May 12, 2022
8 min read

Labrador retrievers, commonly called Labradors or Labs, are among the most popular pet breeds. They’re called gun dogs because they were bred to retrieve game animals shot by hunters, making them great hunting partners. 

Lab retrievers are energetic, playful, and versatile. They can be anything from service or guide dogs to family companions. Most importantly, they’re loyal and friendly, which makes them suitable pets for all.

Physical attributes. Depending on the sex, the average Lab size is 21.5 to 24.5 inches from the legs to above the shoulder. Labs weigh 55 to 88 pounds. They have wide heads with strong jaws. They're medium to large and have a built body with strong legs and shoulders to help them run fast. They have a thick and rounded tail, often described as the "otter" tail. 

Labs have a short, straight, but dense coat that comes in yellow, black, and chocolate brown. Their double coat is made up of a coarse outer coat and a soft, thick undercoat that make them waterproof. Labradors have an upright, proud-looking posture in contrast with their endearing, friendly face. They have an average life span of 10 to 14 years.

Labrador personalities. Labs are very friendly dogs. They're affectionate and open to strangers, and they make friends easily. They have high energy levels and are always ready to play while also being highly adaptable and protective. They can work as guide dogs, rescue dogs, or therapy dogs, but their friendly nature makes them unsuitable for guard dog duty.

Training Labs is easy. Even though they like to be active, they remain calm and obedient if trained well. They have a hunting instinct and love to move around. 

Types of Labradors. Labs are classified by their color — yellow, black, and chocolate brown. There are also fox red Labs. 

Based on the breed, Labs are classified as British/English Labs and American Labs. British Labs are broad, short, and blocky, whereas American Labs are leaner and taller. 

Here are some important tips for Labrador retriever care: 

Coat care. Labradors have a waterproof coat that’s resistant to soil and dirt. An occasional bath can help your Lab stay clean. Labs tend to shed a lot. You can groom your Lab by combing their coat once a week. You can also brush their coat to improve their appearance and health. 

Feeding. Lab retrievers are medium-to-large breed dogs. Feed them large breed puppy and dog food. Commercial dog food contains all the required nutrients for your Lab to grow and stay healthy. You can give your Lab home-cooked food too. Consult a vet before starting a home food regimen because some human foods aren’t safe for dogs. Also, make sure they get plenty of fresh water.

Monitor your Lab’s weight and check for signs of bloating or obesity. Labs tend to gain weight if they overeat, have too many treats, or remain inactive. Treats are great for obedience training, but too many treats can cause obesity. 

Exercise and activity. Lab retrievers are enthusiastic and highly energetic. They require a lot of exercise and activity to stay mentally and physically fit. Labs that don't get enough exercise tend to become hyperactive or destructive.

Lab retrievers enjoy swimming and fetching games. They like the outdoors. You can take your Lab on hunting or field trips. They also enjoy canine sports like agility, obedience, and tracking. Additionally, Labs can take up work like rescuing, guiding, drug or bomb detection, service, and assistance.

Flea, tick, and worm care. Fleas can cause itching and irritation, making your dog uncomfortable. Fleas carry tapeworm larvae, which can infect Lab retrievers. Vets don’t recommend flea shampoos and collars for puppies or dogs because they aren’t very effective. However, they recommend monthly medications for flea prevention. You may even have to clean your home to prevent flea infestation. 

Ticks can cause Lyme disease and other conditions in Labs. Check your Lab for ticks and remove them using a tick-removal tool. Your vet may also recommend monthly medicines to prevent ticks.

Intestinal parasitic worms like tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms can infect Labs. Intestinal worms can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, nutrient deficiency, blood in stools, tiredness, and anemia. 

Labrador puppies are routinely dewormed during vet visits. However, it’s important to perform fecal testing during annual visits. If worms or worm eggs are seen in the stool, the vet may give your pet periodic deworming medication. They may also conduct follow-up fecal tests.

Your pet’s stool may have infectious pathogens and parasites that can be transmitted to people. Don’t forget to pick up your dog's stool and always wear shoes when walking in the areas where they defecate. 

Heartworms are another parasite that can affect your dog’s lungs, heart, and arteries. Heartworms can be dangerous as they can cause heart and lung problems, organ damage, and even death if left untreated. It's easier to prevent heartworms than to treat them. Heartworm prevention medicines not only treat heartworms but also help treat and prevent intestinal parasites. Speak to your veterinarian about the best preventive medicines for your pet. 

Tooth care. Brush your Lab’s teeth frequently. Use a canine toothpaste and toothbrush or dental wipes to clean your Lab’s teeth once each day. Your pet may need professional teeth cleaning at the vet’s clinic once in a while.

Nail care. If you hear clicking sounds on the floor, it’s a sign to trim your Lab retriever’s nails. You can use a trimmer or grinder to trim their nails regularly. Or instead of trimming their nails at home, you can take them to a groomer.

Temperature sensitivity. Labs have a thick double coat, making them tolerant to the cold. They have more body fat than smaller or thinner dogs, so they tend to be more cold-tolerant.

Vet visits. Your Lab puppy needs to visit the vet for immunizations. Typically, your Lab will get the distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus, and parainfluenza (DHLPP) vaccine. They’ll also get the bordetella bacteria vaccine to prevent an infection called kennel cough. Your Lab will get these vaccines every few weeks from 6 to 8 weeks until 16 to 20 weeks of age. 

The vet will give your Lab the rabies vaccine at 16 to 20 weeks. They may also give other vaccines like the Lyme disease vaccine based on your pet’s lifestyle. The vet will let you know what vaccines are right for your Lab. 

You’ll have to visit the vet to get flea, tick, and heartworm prevention medication for your Lab. Also, you’ll have to take your Lab to the vet for spaying or neutering. Once they grow, you can take them to the vet for semi-yearly or yearly checkups or if they fall ill.

Overall, Labs are healthy dogs. Before breeding, breeders screen the dogs for common health conditions using a DNA test and other tests, including radiographs or examinations by specialists like ophthalmologists. This allows breeders to find which dogs have these conditions and plan their breeding to prevent genetic conditions. After breeding, breeders also check the puppies to ensure they’re healthy. 

Labs are prone to the following health problems.

Orthopedic issues. Labs can have these bone and joint conditions:

  1. Elbow, shoulder, and hip dysplasia. Dysplasia is a genetic condition that affects the elbow, shoulder, or hip joint development. Some Labs show signs of hip dysplasia starting from 4 months of age. Watch out for symptoms like decreased activity, stiffness, limping, pain, difficulty in jumping or running, loss in thigh muscle mass, changes in gait, and so on.

    Treatment for dysplasia involves physical therapy, joint medication, supplements, or surgery.
  2. Knee injuries caused by genetic problems. It’s common for Labs to have knee injuries like cruciate ligament rupture, a genetic problem that causes the degeneration and rupture of connective tissue in the knee. 

    Patellar luxation is also seen in Labs, but it’s less common. Patellar luxation is when the kneecap moves out of its position. It’s a developmental problem that may cause knee joint pain, but most dogs don’t feel much pain.

    Knee injuries affect your Lab’s activity and movement. They can worsen due to trauma or injury. Surgery or long-term medicines are the best way to treat knee problems. 

Exercise-induced collapse. This is a rare genetic nervous system disorder in Lab retrievers. Labs with this condition tend to get weak and collapse after five to 20 minutes of exercise or activity in warm weather because their leg muscles become weak. This condition is diagnosed by a DNA test. It’s usually treated by avoiding activities that trigger collapse.

Bloat. This is a life-threatening stomach condition. Bloat occurs when the stomach fills with air. The stomach may get twisted, contributing to the problem. This is called gastric dilation volvulus (GDV). The air in the stomach increases pressure in the abdomen, affects blood circulation, and can send the dog into shock. Symptoms include an enlarged stomach, retching, salivation, stomach pain, and restlessness. It can only be treated through surgery.

Obesity. Labradors are prone to obesity. It’s important to watch your dog’s food intake and weight. Also, make sure they get enough exercise to stay active and fit.

Eye problems. Labradors may have eye problems like retinal dysplasia or malformation, retinal atrophy or deterioration, cataract, and entropion or eyelids growing inward. They can have distichiasis or two rows of eyelashes. If your pet has eye problems, your vet may refer you to a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Other conditions. Labs can also have hypothyroidism, heart problems, diabetes, and laryngeal paralysis. In addition, they can get ear problems and skin problems like hot spots, which results in redness or swelling of the skin due to allergy or infection. 

DNA tests before breeding can help prevent some genetic conditions. Vets also recommend regular medical checkups to help prevent these and other diseases.

Lab retrievers are friendly with other pet dogs and are great with kids. Compared to other dogs, they don’t bark or drool much. But Labradors shed a lot, so they may be allergenic for people with dog hair allergies. 

The Labrador retriever breed comes from the Canadian province of Newfoundland, not Labrador. In the 16th century, Newfoundland was known for its fishing industry with trading routes between England and Canada. Back then, dogs helped fishermen retrieve nets and lost lines. The dogs also helped them pull carts laden with fish. 

The Newfoundland dogs were smaller than the Labradors we see today. They were known as St John’s dogs. These dogs were crossbred with the hunting dogs that English traders or fishermen brought to Newfoundland. After breeding, they were taken back to England for their retrieving skills. This is how Labradors originated. 

The Earl of Malmesbury was a patron of this breed and coined the name Labrador retriever.