Common Diseases in Golden Retrievers and what you can do to avoid them

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Golden Retrievers" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM

While all owners strive to have a happy, healthy dog, unfortunately there are some genetic diseases which no matter how healthy your dog is, they stand a chance of contracting. However, just because the breed is predisposed to a certain condition, does not mean that your dog will definitely suffer from it at some point in his life. When you are a Golden Retriever owner, there are some conditions which you should have heightened awareness about, so that if you notice the symptoms, you can see your vet sooner rather than later. That way, your dog will get the best treatment as early as possible, to stop the progression of the disease soon after it starts.

Cardiac Diseases

Aortic Stenosis

Also known as subaortic stenosis (SAS), this is a heart condition which causes a narrowing of the exit to the heart. The left-hand side of the heart pumps oxygenated blood coming back from the lungs to the body, so when the exit is narrowed there will be more resistance, and therefore the heart muscle must contract significantly harder to push the blood out.

Golden retriever house training
Photo Courtesy – Chris Wicks

Like any muscle that works hard, it will gradually grow bigger. But unlike muscles in other parts of the body, where big muscles mean strong muscles, the heart cannot cope well when it is enlarged. As a result, the blood backs up on this side of the heart to the lungs, which is where it is coming from. An increased pressure in the backed-up blood will cause fluid to leak out of the vein into the surrounding tissues, in this case the lungs. So, in severe cases the lungs will become filled with fluid and the dog will cough. The other symptom it may demonstrate is lethargy or fainting due to not enough oxygenated blood being pumped to the other parts of the body.

Apart from clinical symptoms, it is diagnosed through an ultrasound scan of the heart. If it’s caught early, a veterinary cardiologist can treat this condition to widen the exit of the heart, which will significantly improve the life of the dog. However, if diagnosed late in the disease process, when the heart has already enlarged and the lungs are already compromised, then there are excellent medications to decrease the blood pressure, put less stress on the heart, and decrease any fluid in the lungs.

Pericardial Effusion

The heart is surrounded by a tissue sac called the pericardium. When this fills up with fluid, it constricts the heart’s ability to pump effectively. While both sides are affected, the right-hand side of the heart has thinner walls, and therefore it can become more compromised than the left. The blood coming to the right-hand side of the heart is from the body, so that it can be pumped to the lungs to become oxygenated again. If this blood backs up on its journey to the heart, it may leak fluid out of the vessels into the abdominal cavity.

The cause of pericardial effusions is occasionally cancerous in origin; most commonly a tumor on the outside of the heart. However, it can also be idiopathic, meaning of unknown origin. There was a study in a UK veterinary hospital looking at 143 cases of pericardial effusions, of which 47 cases were Golden Retrievers. Within those 47 cases, seven had a tumor, and the other 40 had no known cause.

Your vet will have a suspicion of pericardial effusion if your dog has suddenly become very lethargic or started fainting or coughing, as when he listens to the heart, it will have the sound of a washing machine, rather than a beating sound. This can be confirmed with either an ultrasound or X-ray. Most vets will be able to drain the fluid from around the heart in a general practice; unfortunately, if the cause is due to cancer, it is likely to simply refill again. Nevertheless, if it is of idiopathic origin, draining the pericardium may be curative.

Dermatological Diseases

Atopic Dermatitis

There are varied opinions as to whether Golden Retrievers are at increased risk of skin allergies, otherwise known as atopic dermatitis, and it appears that it varies between geographical locations.

Golden retriever on leash
Photo Courtesy – Heather Dawson

Skin allergies can be due to several potential causes; food, the environment, or bites. When your dog has a flare-up, he will be extremely itchy, and may scratch and lick various parts of his body such as his feet, underarms, belly, and the inside of his hind legs. He may also have a flare-up of his ear canals and shake his head excessively to relieve his itchy ears.

If you are treating regularly for external parasites to prevent them, then the allergy is unlikely to be due to these, but they should be ruled out with a vet check. A flea allergy only needs one bite to cause your dog to be itchy.

Food allergies should be ruled out first with an elimination diet. These are available from your veterinarian. These diets have had all the protein molecules hydrolyzed, which means the body cannot recognize them to react to them. This diet should be fed for six weeks, with no treats or table scraps. If your dog has significantly improved, then different flavors of meat should gradually be introduced again to see what causes the allergy to flare up.

If both parasites and food allergies have been ruled out, the remaining cause is the environment. This could be due to contact with an allergen, such as floor cleaner or long grass, or inhalant, such as pollen. These allergies are difficult to get on top of as they cannot be avoided. There are several treatment options, which focus on three things; treat flare-ups, prevent future flare-ups, and maintain the health of the coat. Allergies cannot be cured.

There are several different tablets available from your vet to aid the itchiness. Steroids are by far the cheapest, but have major side effects as well as putting a lot of strain on the liver. There are other options which downregulate the immune response to the allergens, but they are costlier.

Another option is for your veterinarian to formulate a vaccination against the allergen. This is administered in increasing intervals, for example firstly at 2 days apart then 4, then a week, etc. These are effective for many dogs; however, the response is not instant.

Finally, diets containing omega-3 and omega-6 should complement any therapy. In the right ratio, they have pronounced anti-inflammatory effects. They also help build up the lipid layer of the skin to provide a better barrier against external allergens.

Wet Eczema

Golden retriever senior
Photo Courtesy – Kellie Blood

Wet eczema is also known as acute moist dermatitis or hot spots. Golden Retrievers have a higher incidence of contracting wet eczema and dogs under the age of four are at increased risk.

It is simply an area of bacterial infection which is red, oozy, and extremely itchy. Your dog will want to lick the area constantly but this is counterproductive as it will cause the infection to spread much quicker. Often the wet eczema is far more extensive than the owner realizes due to the thick coat of a Golden Retriever.

Your vet will be able to recognize it immediately, and will begin by clipping away the hair to reveal the extent of it, as well as let the fresh air get to the area. He will clean the area with antiseptic, which you will need to continue doing until it begins to resolve. Your dog will need a long course of antibiotics—often several weeks’ worth—as well as wear a buster collar around his neck to stop him from licking.


Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid gland does not work efficiently. This can be for several reasons; however, in the Golden Retriever, it is usually due to a prevalence of thyroid hormone autoantibodies (THAA). These attack the thyroid. The thyroid plays a vital role in metabolism, so a dog with hypothyroidism will be sluggish with an increased weight despite a reduced appetite. He might also have a poor skin barrier and thinner hair, due to increased shedding.

Hypothyroidism cannot be cured but it can be managed very effectively with daily tablets, on which your dog can live a normal life.


Golden Retrievers are at an increased risk for a tumor called a hemangiosarcoma. This tumor initially originates on the spleen, but it can spread to the liver, omentum, and lungs. Signs of this tumor are non-specific and you might just notice a sluggishness of your dog and pale gums. A veterinarian, however, will be able to feel a mass in the abdomen, and he may pick it up during a routine check over at an annual vaccination.

Hemangiosarcoma tumors are dangerous, and can cause massive bleeds from the spleen which can lead to sudden death. If the tumor hasn’t spread to other organs, the spleen can be removed via surgery. Most general practitioner vets can do this surgery, but it is lengthy and not without risk. Nevertheless, without the surgery, the prognosis is very poor, and therefore many owners will justify going ahead with the operation on that basis. Once operated on, your dog will be able to live a normal life without a spleen.

Joint Diseases

Elbow Dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia is a common cause of lameness in the front limbs in young dogs. Golden Retrievers are at high risk of this condition. Elbow dysplasia is where parts of the elbow, such as the medial coronoid process or anconeal process, haven’t developed appropriately, and have become detached.

It is a genetic condition and therefore any breeding dogs should have X-rays to confirm the health of the elbows prior to being bred.

Elbow dysplasia can be improved via joint surgery to remove any fragments. Conservative management is also an option which entails anti-inflammatories when needed, controlled exercise including hydrotherapy, and joint supplements, which are discussed further in Chapter 16.

Hip Dysplasia

Golden retriever outdoor
Photo Courtesy – Ashley DeFrancesco

The hip is made up of a ball and socket joint, where the top of the femur meets the pelvis. The top of the femur should be perfectly round and sit in the socket like a puzzle piece, however when a dog has hip dysplasia, the shapes do not match up. It is usually the ball, rather than the socket which is affected. This can cause the hip to become luxated out of the socket if severe, and causes a swing like gait, and hind limb lameness.

Like elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia is also of genetic origin, and therefore the parents should be checked prior to breeding. There are several surgical options, such as replacing the hip with an implant, or fusing it if very severe and finances are a problem, however conservative management is more commonly carried out, which is the same as for elbow dysplasia.

Osteochondrosis Dissecans

Osteochondrosis, also known as OCD, is a condition which usually becomes apparent between 4 and 12 months old. The ends of all bones begin as cartilage, but when a puppy has OCD, it doesn’t convert to bone. Instead, it becomes thickened cartilage, which can become fragmented, or cause a flap, and as a result, gives rise to considerable joint pain.

The joints affected in Goldens are most commonly the shoulder and stifle, although it can happen in any joint of the limb, and therefore the lameness can either be front or hind limb. It is diagnosed with an X-ray and treated with removal of the loose cartilage via arthroscopy, which involves a small camera to be placed inside the joint.

All the joint conditions of Golden Retrievers are seen in younger dogs; however, they will gradually progress to arthritis if not treated or managed appropriately. Arthritis is further discussed in Chapter 16.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Abbreviated to PRA, progressive retinal atrophy is a recessive inherited disease. It can be tested for in breeding animals, and it is the responsible thing to do for anyone intending to breed a Golden.

It causes gradual vision loss, which begins with night blindness. This is due to the back of the eye, known as the retina, gradually deteriorating. There is no treatment for PRA, and it will always lead to blindness of both eyes.

Ectopic Ureters

Golden retriever paws
Photo Courtesy – Meghan Shoeman

The ureter is the tube which carries urine from the kidneys to the bladder, where it is stored until there is enough for the dog to void it. The word ectopic means “outside,” and ectopic ureters are exactly that. It occurs when the ureters come to an end outside the bladder, usually into the urethra, which is the tube which carries the urine from the bladder to outside the body. As a result, dogs which have ectopic ureters will constantly leak urine.

Generally, it is more common in females, and is usually apparent before one year of age. There is nothing medical which can be done for the condition, and surgery is the only option to correct the anatomical abnormality. While waiting for the surgery, the hair should be kept short around the area where the urine is leaking to avoid urine scald, and the area cleaned regularly.

Goldens are prone to many diseases, many of which are genetic in origin, but that is commonly the case with any breed of pedigree dog. By careful selection of your puppy from healthy tested parents, you will have the best chance to have a dog which will have a healthy life. Nevertheless, it is important that all Golden Retriever owners are aware of the potential diseases and are proactive in seeking veterinary advice if any of the symptoms become apparent.

To read more from "The Complete Guide to Golden Retrievers" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM, or purchase on Amazon, visit the link below:

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