A Very Serious Issue for This Predisposed Breed — and a Sensible Solution

overfeeding labrador

Story at-a-glance -

  • Labrador retrievers are the most commonly overweight dog breed, and it turns out they may be hardwired to become virtually obsessed with food
  • Obese Labradors are more likely to be missing a section of DNA from a gene known as proopiomelanocortin (POMC)
  • POMC may help switch off feelings of hunger after a dog has eaten

By Dr. Becker

Rates of obesity and overweight are epidemic among dogs of all kinds, but Labrador retrievers take the cake. One survey of veterinary health care providers found nearly 60 percent of Labrador retrievers were overweight or obese, compared to an overall rate of nearly 53 percent among all dogs.1

Most dogs love to eat, but many Labrador retrievers take eating to another level, moving beyond love to near obsession. Dr. Eleanor Raffan, a veterinarian and metabolic researcher at the University of Cambridge, told Vox:2

"[Labradors] are not only the most commonly overweight breed of dog, but they are notorious for being obsessed by food … Some particularly badly [obsessed] dogs will eat things no other creature would want to consume."

Labrador Obesity: Is Genetics to Blame?

There may be a genetic reason why Labradors tend to be basically hardwired for gluttony. Specifically, Raffan and colleagues noted that obese Labradors were more likely to have a variation in a gene known as proopiomelanocortin (POMC).3

The variation involved a portion of the DNA at the end of the gene, which was missing. They noted, "The deletion disrupts the β-MSH and β-endorphin coding sequences," which are associated with body weight and food motivation.4

It's thought the missing part of the POMC gene may help switch off feelings of hunger after a dog has eaten. POMC is already known to be involved in appetite and hunger. It helps to turn feelings of hunger off, and it's known that POMC deficiency may lead to severe obesity in humans.5

For the featured study, after analyzing the Labradors' DNA, the researchers analyzed DNA from 38 other dog breeds. The gene variant was only found in one other breed: flat-coat retrievers, which are closely related to Labradors.

It's also seen more often in Labrador retrievers selected to become assistance dogs. This could be because the dogs' increased food motivation makes them easier to train using treats. Not all Labradors carry the genetic variation; it's estimated that more than one-fifth do, however.

Dogs with one copy of the genetic variant were about 4 pounds heavier on average than dogs without, while those with two copies weighed close to 8.5 pounds more, on average.

A Good Reason Why Labradors May Be Hardwired With an 'Obesity Gene'

Nature doesn't usually make mistakes. So why would Labradors be hardwired to gain excessive amounts of weight? It might have to do with the St. John's water dog, a now-extinct ancient ancestor to Labradors and flat-coat retrievers.

St. John's water dogs were prized for their swimming ability and would often work to retrieve nets for fisherman.

They commonly swam in cold waters off of Newfoundland, which could explain why a genetic variation that encourages increased calorie consumption would be found in these dogs and their modern-day Labrador and flat-coat retriever relatives. Raffan, from the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian:6

"In that context, when you are doing really hard work and having to burn a lot of calories to stay warm, snaffling any food in sight might have been a really good idea."

The gene may have quickly gotten passed down to future generations because the food-motivated dogs may have been easier to train, and therefore favored by their owners.7

Not All Labradors Have the 'Obesity Gene' Mutation — And Don't Panic If You Think Yours Does

If you have a Labrador retriever or Labrador retriever mix, and you have one of "those" dogs who eats, sleeps and breathes food, you're probably now connecting the dots that his love for food may be due to his genes. It may be, or it may not, and in reality it doesn't really matter either way.

For starters, not all Labradors have the mutation. And those who do are not necessarily destined to be overweight or obese. If you give in to your dog's demands, he may quickly pack on the pounds (and he may do so faster and more easily than other dogs).

However, the solution to keeping your dog at a healthy weight is the same regardless of breed or genetic makeup: feed a nutritionally balanced fresh food, species-appropriate diet.

The idea is to mimic the diet your dog would eat if she were a wild dog, which is whole prey along with supplemental berries, grass, seeds, nuts and other plants. You can recreate this diet by making homemade dog food, just be sure you use healthy, nutritionally appropriate recipes.

Fresh foods cellularly nourish your furry companion and can often times provide a level of satiety that highly processed, refined and carb-based dead/dry foods can't. By the way, do not fall for the suggestion that you need to feed your overweight dog "diet" or "low-calorie" food, especially those made of kibble.

Feeding grain-heavy kibble, whether "diet" or otherwise, is a recipe for weight gain, not loss, in your dog (and this includes other starchy fillers, too, like pea, potato, corn, lentil, chickpea, rice and tapioca, as well as soy).

Portion Size and Exercise Matter Too

If you've switched your dog to a healthier food diet, be sure you're also feeding the appropriate portion size. If you're not sure how much, ask your veterinarian. Many pet owners overfeed their dogs. You'll also need to account for treats.

Daily exercise, at least 20 minutes but preferably 60 minutes, is important for all dogs, but is especially crucial for pets who need to lose weight. Be sure that some of the exercise is vigorous, i.e., it gets your dog's heart rate up.

Try Time-Restricted Feeding If All Else Fails

Here's the "worst-case" scenario: you switch your dog to a species-appropriate diet, are feeding the appropriate portion size and getting plenty of exercise sessions in and your dog is still not losing weight. First, be sure you've given it enough time. Weight loss won't happen overnight (nor should it). Gradual weight loss is best. If it's been a couple of months, however, here's another trick you can try: time-restricted feeding (TRF), also called intermittent fasting.

To do so, you feed the same amount of food but you change up the timing to a more restricted period. You can feed one meal a day or two smaller meals within a six- to eight-hour period.

Ideally, you'll want to allow your dog's gastrointestinal tract to rest in between meals for 16 to 24 hours and fit one to two meals into the remaining time. Preliminary research suggests a dog's metabolism can be jumpstarted in this way, by regularly altering caloric content, feeding frequency and volume of food.

This also harkens back to your dog's wild ancestors, who regularly dealt with periods of no or little food. Metabolically speaking, your dog is not designed to graze all day long, so TRF may be the extra kick your dog needs to lose weight (especially if he's a Labrador).