Labradors are Britain’s most popular dogs for the very good reasons that they are friendly, loyal and easy to train. But as most owners soon realise, there is a downside – they are rather too fond of their food and are prone to getting fat. However, scientists have now said owners should stop automatically blaming themselves if their beloved pet becomes a little portly, because, for many of them at least, it is all in the genes. This is a common genetic variant in Labradors and has a significant effect on those dogs that carry itDr Eleanor Raffan, Cambridge University New research carried out by the University of Cambridge found a genetic variation which they believe drives some Labradors and flat coat retrievers to be naturally obsessed by food. It means that when a dog begs incessantly or starts drooling at the sound of a biscuit tin being opened, it could well be because it is “genetically hungry”, rather than spoiled by overly indulgent humans. The University of Cambridge researchers behind the study say they hope the results can “shift the paradigm away from owner-blaming”. They also caution against attempts to breed the responsible variation, known as POMC, out of the Labrador gene pool, as that risks also losing many of the traits which make the breed so popular. Published in the journal Cell Metabolism, the study involved analysing the genes of 310 Labradors, combined with weighing the animals and assessing their “food motivation using an owner questionnaire. The researchers found that nearly a quarter carried at least one copy the POMC variant, one of three potential obesity-related genes being looked for. For each copy of the gene carried, the dog was found to be on average 1.9 kg heavier. The team said this effect size was particularly notable given the extent to which owners, rather than the dogs themselves, control the amount of food and exercise their dogs receive. Some Labradors are 'genetically hungry' Credit: Getty “This is a common genetic variant in Labradors and has a significant effect on those dogs that carry it, so it is likely that this helps explain why Labradors are more prone to being overweight in comparison to other breeds,” said Dr Eleanor Raffan, who led the research. “However, it’s not a straightforward picture as the variant is even more common among flat coat retrievers, a breed not previously flagged as being prone to obesity.” Roughly a quarter of British households own a pet dog, with one in three believed to be overweight. Being overweight reduces a dog’s quality of life and can exacerbate joint disorders such as arthritis. “But equally, being hungry is a welfare issue, and these dogs are genetically hungry,” said Dr Raffan. She warned that trying to get rid of the mutation could change the personality of the breed. Dr Giles Yeo, a Cambridge colleague who also worked on the study, said: “Labradors make particularly successful working and pet dogs because they are loyal, intelligent and eager to please, but, importantly, they are also relatively easy to train. “Food is often used as a reward during training, and carrying this variant may make dogs more motivated to work for a titbit.” Separate research is currently being undertaken at the University of Liverpool in an effort to design treatments for ligament damage in Labradors, the most common orthopaedic problem encountered by vets. Scientists are using advanced imaging technology to assess exactly how the breed’s knee bones work together and how walking contributes to the risk of ligament injury or rupture. Future treatments, such as customised knee implants, would be of particular use to overweight dogs.