The Labrador Retriever is a basically healthy dog, however with any dog there are some conditions that can be problematic. The Lab, much to the credit of the breed, doesn't have some of the very serious genetic conditions found in other breeds. There are, of course, several hereditary conditions that can be difficult for the dog and the owner to deal with, however most are not life-threatening.
The average life span for a Labrador Retriever is approximately 12 to 14 years, however some can live longer. One of the biggest issues in aging Labs is their breed tendency to gain weight and cut down on their normal activity levels. Often the heavier dogs simply have more difficulty in getting around as they age, so constant weight maintenance throughout the life of the Lab is essential.
One of the key aspects of keeping your Labrador Retriever fit is to feed a correctly balanced and nutritionally sound diet. Many breeders and gun dog trainers recommend a raw diet or BARF (bones and raw food or biologically appropriate raw foods) diet for working dogs. When feeding these types of raw meat, bone, vegetables and fruits you may also have to add other supplements including whole grains and even vitamin and mineral supplements. There are some diets that come pre-formulated in frozen form if you are concerned about being able to nutritionally balance the food yourself.
For those that aren't comfortable with a BARF type of diets, a high quality premium kibble that is as organic and holistic as possible is a great option. Avoid any type of cheap kibble that is mostly empty filler materials as this will cause weight gain and can lead to conditions such as bloat and other digestive disorders. Since bloat, more correctly known as gastric torsion, can be fatal, it is important to prevent any possible problems. Know the signs of bloat and also talk to your vet about preventing bloat if you notice your dog gulping food or water or experiencing any signs of discomfort or anxiety after eating.
Exercise is a must for these dogs, since they can easily become couch potatoes if not challenged. They love to be outdoors so plan a daily walk, longer play time and a half an hour or so of fetch or other games per day to keep the dog active and energetic. Labs will stay moderately active all through their lives, which will also help with weight management and prevent obesity.
Some Labrador Retriever lines are prone to elbow and hip problems. Hip and elbow dysplasia are inherited conditions that occur when the structure, or more correctly the ligaments and muscles supporting the structure of the joint aren't tight. This allows the joint to slide around and bump against the other part of the joint, resulting in wear and bone damage. This roughened area of the socket or ball part of the joint then continues to wear away at the gel like lining, eventually leading to bone on bone contact. The results of the bone on bone contact may take months or years to be fully noticeable, but they typically result in loss of motion in the joint, stiffness, pain and inflammation. Arthritis is a secondary and equally serious condition that can then occur.
Testing all Labrador Retrievers that are being used for breeding purposes for hip and elbow soundness before breeding is the sign of a reputable kennel and breeder. Unfortunately not all individuals selling Labs, even registered and purebred puppies, go to this effort. Working with a breeder that has experience with the breed, performs hip and elbow tests and has breeding stock certified as free from joint problems is the best possible option.
As a breed the Lab may also have some eye problems, however they are not different than most of the other working and sporting dog breeds. The most common is an inherited condition known as progressive retinal atrophy or PRA. There is no treatment or cure for PRA and it is not believed to be painful for the dog. Rather, the dog simply begins to gradually lose their sight, often starting with their ability to see at night. In some dogs the condition progresses very slowly, while in others it is much faster. Eventually almost all dogs with PRA will become completely blind, however with the gradually decreasing vision most dogs are able to adjust to their loss of sight and lead relatively normal lives with some additional safety measures. Dogs with PRA or from litters with PRA should be spayed and neutered, even if they don't show the disease themselves. There is now a genetic test for PRA that can be used prior to breeding to test for this recessive gene.
Other eye conditions that can occur in the Lab include cataracts, retinal atrophy and retinal dysplasia. In general these types of eye conditions are relatively rare and, especially in the case of cataracts, can be corrected with surgical procedures. Retinal issues are typically hereditary and congenital, which means they are present from birth. They may cause complete blindness to mild vision problems, however they typically do not become progressively worse unless there is an other eye condition or infection that occurs. It is always important to ask about the eye conditions that may be found within the breeding lines. A reputable breeder will not use dogs with these conditions or from litters where these conditions are present.
The large, folded over ears of the Lab may be prone to ear infections, especially if the dog is constantly in and out of the water. The warm moist and protected area inside the ear is an ideal growth spot for troublesome bacteria. Watch for signs of rubbing, scratching or shaking of the head combined with any redness in the ear or any type of strong smell from the ear. Checking the ears for these signs on a weekly basis and keeping any waxy discharge cleaned out of the ears is typically all that is needed to prevent the issue. Some dogs with chronic ear problems can also be provided with drops that both clean and dry the area within the ear, making it less hospitable to problem bacteria.