Obesity, Appetite and a Gene Mutation in Labrador Retrievers

A yellow Labrador Retriever and a fox red one; the fox red form is a variation of the yellow form and isn't officially recognized as a distinct type
A yellow Labrador Retriever and a fox red one; the fox red form is a variation of the yellow form and isn't officially recognized as a distinct type | Source

Weight Gain in Labrador Retrievers

Labrador retrievers are usually affectionate dogs that make wonderful pets. Unfortunately, some have a tendency to gain weight. In fact, pet experts often mention the breed as the one that is most likely to become obese. In some dogs the weight gain is probably caused by a high calorie intake and insufficient exercise. There may be another factor at work, however. Researchers have discovered that a significant percentage of Labs have a gene mutation linked to increased weight. The mutation may prevent their hunger from being satisfied and increase their obsession with food.

Misha is my Labrador Retriever. Like most Labs, he loves to eat. We mustn't assume that a dog who eats a lot has a genetic problem that increases their hunger. Even if a dog has the mutation, the steps for keeping him or her at a healthy weight are the same. The task may be harder in an animal with the mutated gene, though.

Misha, my black Lab
Misha, my black Lab | Source

Dog Obesity Statistics

The research into the gene mutation in Labrador Retrievers was carried out by a group of twenty-two scientists. Most of them are associated with the University of Cambridge Metabolic Research Laboratories. Based on a survey of the scientific literature, the researchers have discovered the following facts.

  • In developed countries, between 34% and 59% of dogs are obese.
  • Recent increases in canine obesity and in diseases linked to the obesity mirror changes seem in humans.
  • Despite the above facts, obesity is more common in some dog breeds than others, suggesting that genetics plays a role in the disorder.

Of all dog breeds for which data have been reported, Labrador retrievers have the greatest documented obesity prevalence .... and have been shown to be more food motivated than other breeds.

— Cell Metabolism Journal Article

Solving the Dog Obesity Problem

A Gene Mutation That May Affect Hunger and Appetite

The gene that is linked to a Labrador Retriever's weight gain and obesity is known as the POMC or pro-opiomelanocortin gene. (There may be other genes that can also cause Lab obesity.) The mutation consists of the deletion of a section of DNA from the gene. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the chemical that makes up genes. Genes contain coded instructions for making proteins. If a section of DNA is missing, so is part of the instructions.

The POMC gene codes for a protein that splits up to form two neuropeptides: beta-MSH (melanocyte-stimulating hormone) and beta-endorphin. As a result of the mutation, the production of the neuropeptides is assumed to be disrupted. (This assumption wasn't tested in the research.) The chemicals are thought to play an important role in ending the sensation of hunger once a dog eats, although there are other chemicals and brain pathways involved in ending hunger.

When the dog experiences a weaker signal "telling" it that it's no longer hungry, its appetite may not be completely satisfied even after it has eaten what should be a sufficient amount of food. This may be the reason for the increased food searching behaviours and weight observed in many dogs with the mutation.

These Labs look like good friends.
These Labs look like good friends. | Source

Prevalence of the Mutated Gene

The mutated gene was found in 23% of the 721 Labrador Retrievers tested in the UK and the United States. The dogs included both companion and assistance animals. Interestingly, the gene was discovered in 76% of the 81 assistance dogs that were checked. The greatly increased percentage in assistance dogs was surprising to the researchers.

According to owner reports, dogs with the mutation are more motivated to find food than dogs without the mutated gene and perform behaviours such as food scavenging and begging more often. In addition, most of the dogs in the experiment who had the mutation were significantly heavier than their counterparts. Many were overweight or obese. This wasn't true for all of the dogs with the mutation, however. This may have been due to diligent food and portion control by the owners.

The researchers discovered that some dogs without the mutation were obese, which shows that there are additional factors - genetic or otherwise - that control body weight in Labs.

The mutated gene has been found in flat-coat retrievers and has been linked to obesity in that breed. Flat-coated retrievers are close relatives of Labs. Some mice, rats and humans also have POMC genes associated with obesity. The mutated dog gene is most similar to one in humans, which means that research in dogs may be helpful for us as well as our canine companions.

Owen, my family's chocolate Lab
Owen, my family's chocolate Lab | Source

Assistance dogs are trained to help people with a disability. Some examples of disabilities that can be helped by a well-trained assistance dog are blindness, hearing loss and paralysis.

Assistance Dogs and a POMC Gene Mutation

The researchers have an interesting hypothesis for the greatly increased prevalence of the mutation in assistance dogs. They emphasize that their hypothesis is only a possibility and needs to be tested. Assistance dogs are generally given food rewards when they perform a desired behaviour, at least in the first stage of their training. Therefore all other things being equal, a dog that is more strongly motivated by food could be easier to train and make a better assistance dog. Adult dogs who possess the POMC mutation and pass it to their offspring might be seen as producers of the best puppies and favoured as parents. The mutation would therefore become more common in the assistance dog population.

The hypothesis sounds quite plausible, although I do wonder whether an assistance dog with the POMC mutation could become so distracted by the presence of nearby food that they no longer do their job properly. Ignoring temptation would have to be a major part of their training.

I got Misha from a lady who breeds her dogs to produce puppies for the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS). The plan was to train some of Misha's litter for PADS. Misha has an unusually strong interest in finding food compared to my other Labs. The combination of these factors makes me wonder if Misha has the POMC mutation. Identifying the presence of the gene would certainly make me feel sorry for him but wouldn't change the steps that I need to follow in order to keep him at a healthy weight.

Bess, my yellow Lab
Bess, my yellow Lab | Source

How to Keep a Dog at a Healthy Weight

The following steps should enable a dog to maintain a healthy weight. They are especially important for a Labrador Retriever that may have a gene that contributes to weight gain and obesity. If your dog gains weight even after the steps are being followed, it's a good idea to see a vet. The dog may have a medical problem that causes weight gain, such as hypothyroidism.

  • Feed your dog an adequate amount of food at meal times and make sure that the food is healthy and nutritious.
  • Check with a vet or your breeder if you have any doubts that your dog is being given enough (or too much) food. Labels on dog food packages may be a useful guide but may not be completely reliable.
  • Check your dog's weight frequently. Ask your vet whether the dog is at a suitable weight and check whether any adjustments to diet or exercise are needed.
  • Consider the use of treats very carefully. Multiple people in a family giving high calories treats to a pet at different times of the day can cause weight gain. If you want to give treats, examine their nutrition and calorie content and decide when and how often the dog will be given the treat.
  • Don't give your dog food from your meal while you're eating. Even as a puppy, a dog should be trained not to beg at the table. If human food is given to a dog, it should be part of their regular meal. (Be very careful if you do this. Some human foods are dangerous for dogs.)
  • Some dogs can be very cute and persuasive when they beg for food. They quickly discover the behaviours that their owner finds hard to resist! Harden your heart and don't succumb if your dog begs. That being said, if a dog repeatedly asks for food even when you don't capitulate, you should consider why they are behaving in this way.
  • Give your dog regular and sufficient exercise. The type of exercise is also important to consider. Some dogs require a more vigorous workout than others.

Inspiring Labrador Retriever Weight Loss

Any dog with a problem involving food intake should be checked by a vet. It shouldn't be assumed that the condition must be a behavioural or genetic problem. There may be a medical reason for the situation.

Food Stealing and Scavenging in Dogs

Food stealing and scavenging can not only cause a dog to gain weight but can also be dangerous if the dog eats certain foods. It can also be bad for oral health. Misha is a lovely dog and is generally well behaved, but he has stolen food in the past. I make sure that I keep most food out of his reach now. Training and discipline have definitely improved his behaviour and he does leave food alone when I tell him to. Food is still a big temptation for him, though. It's not his only interest in life, but it's a major one.

Of course, training and discipline mustn't hurt a dog either physically or psychologically. Every prospective dog owner should do some research to discover safe and effective ways to train and discipline a puppy or a dog before they bring it into their home.

There are at least two important reasons for hiding certain foods from all dogs. One is that some foods commonly eaten by humans are unsafe for dogs and should never be eaten by them. Another is that eating a large amount of food very quickly has been associated with bloat, a potential deadly condition in dogs. Raiding a large bag of dry dog food is especially dangerous in this regard.

Some yellow Labs are so pale in colour that they look almost white.
Some yellow Labs are so pale in colour that they look almost white. | Source

Like humans, an overweight or obese dog has an increased risk of developing a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular problems, breathing difficulty, diabetes, joint disorders and cancer. The dog is also at risk for a reduced lifespan.

Tips for Preventing a Dog from Stealing Food

There are two ways to prevent a dog from stealing food: train them to leave food alone or hide it from them. I use a combination of both methods. Training is especially important when a dog scavenges outside the home where food can't be hidden.

Here are some tips for hiding or removing food so that a dog can't get to it. I follow many of them myself.

  • Make sure that all food is put out of a dog's reach as soon as it's brought into the home. An enclosed area such as a high cupboard or a refrigerator is best.
  • Don't leave food on a table, counter or other exposed surface in your home.
  • If you're in the middle of making a meal in the kitchen and need to leave the room with food exposed, the kitchen door should be closed. If this isn't possible and your dog likes to counter-surf, the dog should be supervised by someone else or placed in a secure and comfortable area such as their crate.
  • If you have to leave a meal before finishing it and your dog isn't trustworthy when food is temporarily unattended, ask someone else to watch the meal, take the meal with you or place it in an inaccessible place.
  • Store unused pet food in a secure area.
  • If your dog steals another pet's food as soon as your back is turned, supervise the other pet as it's eating or feed it in an area that is inaccessible to your dog.
  • Remove food left or dropped by other pets to prevent your dog from scavenging.
  • Place food scraps, empty food containers and garbage in a secure container or a place that your dog can't reach.
  • Don't leave your dog alone in a car with either human or pet food.

A chocolate Lab puppy
A chocolate Lab puppy | Source

Learning More about the POMC gene

Hopefully researchers will soon learn more about the mutated POMC gene and the way in which it affects both dogs and humans. I would also be interested in research that compares the frequency of the mutation in show line and field line Labrador Retrievers. Show line dogs are stockier animals than field line ones.

It would be wonderful if researchers found a way to safely compensate for the effect of the mutated gene by biological or chemical means. Until then, dog lovers should try to keep their Labrador Retrievers at a healthy weight to reduce the chance of disease and to help them enjoy life more.


A Deletion in the Canine POMC Gene - the research report from the Cell Metabolism Journal

Why Labrador retrievers are more interested in food than other breeds - a press release for the general public from the Cell Metabolism Journal

© 2016 Linda Crampton

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Comments 32 comments

Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 5 months ago from The Beautiful South

You give some great advice. It is very hard to not spoil our dogs and over feed them but for their health we never should although I think most of us use food for as a reward even for our kids much less our dogs!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment, Jackie. I agree - dogs and children love food as a reward, but it's very important to be careful with their health.

DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 5 months ago from The Beach of Brazil

Very interesting article! Since one of the first selection tests for an assistance dog is "retrieval", it sounds like we are selecting for the obesity gene since the puppies that retrieve may in fact be running after an object looking for food. When the object is not something that they can eat, they bring it back to the human and hope for a treat (since all puppies learn early that humans are a source of food). It sounds like a hard cycle to break!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment and for sharing the interesting information, DrMark. The situation that you've described certainly does sound like a hard cycle to break!

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 5 months ago from San Diego California

I love labs. They are some of the most mailmen-friendly dogs around. I think Labs need a lot of exercise. They are retrievers and have a natural instinct to run, track and fetch things. People that have animals like this really have to keep them engaged, in order to keep them healthy. Great hub!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I'm happy to read about your view of Labs, Mel! Your description of a Labrador Retriever's needs is absolutely right. They are lovely dogs, but they do need a lot of attention.

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

There definitely seems to be some selection in assistance dogs for factors that are conflated with this gene. You have such interesting topics and beautiful dogs. With my cats, they all have equal access to food and are well exercised but several are obese and others are normal or skinny minnies. It does make you wonder about genetics.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Flourish. Genetics is certainly an interesting topic. One of my cats is very large while the other two - one of which is the same breed as the big one and has one parent in common - are small. More than one vet has said that the big one isn't overweight. He's just a giant!

billybuc profile image

billybuc 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

One of the things I enjoy about your articles is the fact that they are so original....and informative...and just well-written. This one is no exception.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Bill. I appreciate your comment a great deal.

Vellur profile image

Vellur 5 months ago from Dubai

An interesting and informative hub about weight gain and appetite in Labrador Retrievers. A gene mutation can wreak havoc, hope Misha is in the best of health now.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Vellur. Thanks for the visit. I'm happy to say that Misha is in good health at the moment.

Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 5 months ago from southern USA

This is such an important hub, Linda.

We love our chocolate lab, Max, so much. He is very healthy as we only feed him the best dog food we can find and no food from the table ever. He does get a doggie treat now and then. He is one of the tallest labs we've ever had with such a shiny coat.

We did have a couple of black labs and one yellow lab when my children were growing up. One of the black labs did have hip dysplasia, which is so sad for any dog. He was one dog who would try to snatch food from our hands whenever we were outside having a BBQ.

Misha, Owen and Bess are such beautiful dogs! Bess reminds me of my childhood yellow Lab, Brownie, he was a three-legged dog who adopted our family and lived with us throughout our childhood!

I am sharing this important information everywhere.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I loved reading about your Labs, Faith! It sounds like you treat Max like I treat Misha. Unfortunately, like your black Lab, Bess had hip dysplasia. She has passed on but is still very much in my mind.

Thank you so much for the shares, Faith. I appreciate them all.

Kaili Bisson profile image

Kaili Bisson 5 months ago from Canada

What a fascinating article. I had never heard of this before, but it seems it is fairly prevalent in this breed. I am going to pass this to a friend who has one of these doggies. Thank you!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for commenting and for sharing the information with your friend, Kali. It's a great shame that some Labs are obese. They are wonderful dogs.

Suhail and my dog 5 months ago

Although I don't have a labrador, but my brother and his family may end up having one. I will definitely refer this article to his daughters.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Suhail. Thanks for sharing the information with your relatives. Labrador Retrievers make lovely pets, but it is important to be careful with their food intake.

DDE profile image

DDE 5 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

I recently watched a documentary on why pet owners have overweight pets. Over feeding, and less exercise was the problem. The other issue is when pet owners have more than one dog and keep their feeding dishes in different spaces one of the dogs usually eats what the other dog has left and that allowed for that dog to grow over weight. You shared useful points.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for sharing the information, DDE. The facts that you've mentioned are important for dog owners to remember.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 5 months ago from South Africa

Very interesting, thank you, Alicia and all researchers. Why Labradors have a tendency to gain weight, was indeed a question on my mind. I wonder when will it be possible to replace bad genes with good ones?

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit, Martie. I hope that in the future there will be a way to solve genetic problems in both dogs and humans. It would be wonderful to eliminate health disorders caused by gene mutations.

Deb Hirt 5 months ago

I found this of great interest, as I have known many people with overweight labs, ad these were dogs that were very active under normal circumstances. This gene could be much more prevalent, or human food could be a bigger culprit.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Deb. Yes, there could be more than one reason for weight gain in Labs. I hope researchers explore the possible reasons thoroughly. We need to fight obesity in both dogs and humans.

AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 5 months ago from California

I love bigger dogs, labs included and it can be hard not to overfeed them--such an interesting article--I didn't realize there was a gene mutation involved

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Audrey. I love big dogs, too - as well as small and medium-sized ones! There may not be a gene mutation involved in all cases of Lab obesity, but a genetic problem may be responsible for more cases than we realize. It's an interesting thought.

Larry Rankin 4 months ago

Very interesting stuff. I have a Jack Russell that is 11. It seems as the years go by keeping her slim is more difficult, but I wouldn't say she has a tendency towards obesity.

Great read!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for commenting, Larry. I hope your dog stays healthy and happy for a long time to come. I've never owned a Jack Russell, but I think it's an interesting breed.

bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 4 months ago from Massachusetts

Hi Linda. Your labs are beautiful. Great information as always. I was not aware of the POMC gene, very interesting. Have a wonderful,day.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Bill. Thanks for the comment about the article and my dogs. I think all dogs are beautiful! I hope the week ahead is a great one for you.

teaches12345 2 months ago

My neighbor has two labradors and they are so friendly. I will have to pass on this information to her so she can keep an eye on their eating habits.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for passing the article on to your neighbor, Dianna. I love Labrador retrievers. In my experience, they are very friendly animals, like the ones that live near you.

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    Linda Crampton (AliciaC)1,244 Followers
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    Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honours degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

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