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The Science Behind Food Motivation in Labrador Retrievers

A new genetic research study finds a biological reason for Retriever's food motivation.

Anyone who's ever trained a Labrador Retriever can attest to the love of food most dogs in this breed display. A study published this summer in the open access journal Cell Metabolism indicates that Labs may have a gene that influences their intense interest in food and their tendency towards obesity.

The study was conducted by scientists in the United Kingdom and Sweden. Labrador Retrievers were chosen as the subject breed due to their statistically higher incidence of both obesity and strong food motivation compared to other breeds. The genes of 310 dogs were part of the study and were initially weighed to create a group of lean dogs and a group of obese dogs. Some of dogs were pet dogs and some were service dogs.

The scientists found that in the dogs that were heavier had a strong association with a mutation in the gene sequence known as a pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC). This mutation messes up the production of a specific hormone and endorphin that are responsible for weight regulation and food motivation (and is found to have the same effects in humans as well). They also found a strong correlation between the presence of this mutation and dogs that were service dogs (76%), which possibly explains why some labs in particular are so easily trained to perform this high level of work. This mutation is also found in many Flat Coat Retrievers but not to the degree that it is found in Labs.

The researchers conclude that among the pet dogs with this mutation (23%), their tendency toward obesity can be explained by the high food-seeking behaviors the dogs engage in, and owners who are not vigilant about properly controlling their diet and ensuring they get enough exercise can easily find themselves with overweight dogs. States Dr. Eleanor Raffan, the lead researcher, "If you keep a really food-motivated Labrador slim, you should be giving yourself a pat on the back, because it's much harder for you than it is for someone with a less food-motivated dog."

Future research on the mutation will focus on puppies and using the genetic test to determine their higher level of suitability for service dog work, as well as looking at how human obesity can be helped with a better understanding of how these biological processes work in the body.

Sources: Raffan et al. A deletion in the canine POMC gene is associated with weight and appetite in obesity prone Labrador retriever dogs. Cell Metabolism, 2016 DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2016.04.012 andWhy Labrador retrievers are more interested in food than other breeds. Science Daily, 2016..

photo credit: Roxy2 via photopin (license)


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