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How to determine your Labrador's litter size
As we've said, the number of puppies inside a Labrador's belly varies greatly. Your pet can have anywhere from one to over twelve puppies. The average litter size is five to ten, but it is heavily influenced by several factors (more on that later).
Your veterinarian can actually help you find out exactly how many puppies there are inside a Lab's uterus. They can take X-rays of the pregnant female and count the skeletons of pups in her belly. This is an acceptable way to determine litter size in dogs.
Although it's not sure-fire” because it's easy to miss one of the puppies” this process gives you a good idea of how many little wigglers to expect. You have to wait until six weeks of pregnancy for puppies' skeletal system to develop. Ultrasound scans and abdominal palpation are other ways to estimate litter size.
What is the average litter size for Labs?
In 2011, a comprehensive study was performed to answer the question of litter size in dogs. The researchers analyzed 224 breeds and more than 10,000 litters, and they calculated the average litter size to be 5.4. However, there was a clear difference between miniature and large breeds. The former only had 3.5 pups per litter, while the latter produced 7.1 pups on average.
The above research is for all dog breeds. But the AKC analyzed over 85,000 Labrador litters to conclude that Labs have a typical range of five to ten puppies, with an average of 7.6.
So we can safely say that Labradors, being a large breed, will likely have a larger litter size. Though cases of producing just a puppy or two are not unheard of. Overall, if you have a pregnant Lab mother, expect her to give birth to about half a dozen babies.
The biggest Labrador litter on record
Now you know how many puppies to expect when your Lab gets pregnant. And you're probably wondering, "But what's the maximum they can pop out?" Well, you'll be shocked to find out that it's twice the average litter size!
Back in 2014, when a black Scottish Labrador named Anne was pregnant, the vet predicted that she would have three to six puppies. Little did they know, the proud mama kept popping out babies one after the other until there were 15 of them!
A more recent case was reported a few months back in April 2020. Here, A Labrador called Bella produced 14 fur babies, just one shy of the record set in 2014. The labor lasted for seven hours, and Bella gave birth to eight black and six yellow Labs.
Fun fact: Anne's 15 kids are a lot, but the Guinness World Record for most puppies is set by Tia, a Neapolitan mastiff. She gave birth to 24 puppies in November 2004. Of course, she couldn't do it all by herself and had to take the help of a Cesarean section.
Factors affecting Labrador litter size
Many variables influence how many puppies Labradors have. In this section, we'll talk about some of the crucial ones. But several other factors such as breeding management, reproductive history, and season also play a role. Even the environment she lives in affects her well-being and, consequently, the health and number of her babies.
Labradors usually remain fertile for their entire lives. However, as you might imagine, their litter size decreases as they get older. As a general rule, Labs are most fertile between the ages of two to five. However, regardless of her age, a dog's first litter is usually smaller than the future ones. After the first one, the number of puppies increases with every litter, through the fourth litter. Then, it starts declining steadily.
A Labrador will have her first heat cycle anytime after she's six months old. But you should never breed a Lab during her first heat cycle, as she's relatively young at this point. Imposing the stress of pregnancy and lactation can have adverse effects on the mother's mental health. Just like very old females, too young mothers also produce smaller litters.
This is why the AKC recommends waiting for the third heat cycle, which means not breeding until the female Lab is 18-24 months old.
Lastly, the male Lab's age also affects the litter size. But the influence is much less than the female's age. As a male Lab gets older, his sperm count and quality decrease. He will produce larger litters under the age of five.
For more about the best breeding ages, see my article Labrador Retriever Breeding Ages: Male and Female.
We've already discussed that smaller breeds tend to produce fewer puppies, and larger breeds have a bigger litter size. This trend is seen even within the same breed. A Labrador weighing 45 pounds (20 kg) may only produce five or six babies, while a 70-pound (32 kg) Lab may give birth to a litter of ten puppies or more.
Again, these are only generalizations based on the data available about Labrador puppies, which means there will be exceptions. You can have a relatively small Lab giving birth to nine or ten pups every litter.
Health and Nutrition
This one is a no-brainer. If your Lab is happy and healthy, she'll give birth to more puppies, and the babies born will be healthier as well. The mother needs to be in perfect health so that she and her pups survive the birthing and whelping process. Not only the female but the male Lab should also be healthy if you want to avoid complications.
Nutrition is crucial for your Labs throughout their entire lives. And when it comes to breeding, diet directly affects the litter size. Both male and female Labs will produce healthier and larger litters if they've been fed a high-quality diet.
Check out my Recommended Products for foods that I recommend, including custom fresh food solutions.
Gene Pool Diversity
Breeding two dogs from diverse genetic backgrounds results in bigger litters. Similarly, the smaller the gene pool is, the fewer puppies your Lab will have. Gene pool is smaller when closely related dogs (brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, etc.) are bred together. The more dogs are bred from the same line, the smaller the litter will be.
This process of mating such dogs is known as inbreeding. We can measure the gene pool diversity using the coefficient of inbreeding, a numerical value ranging from zero (not inbred at all) to one (completely inbred).
Other Factors to Consider
Apart from the things we discussed, litter size is also affected by:
- Type of breeding: Natural breeding results in more puppies than artificial insemination (AI). Using AI can decrease the litter size by as much as 15 percent.
- Season: Usually, if a Lab gives birth in spring, she produces more puppies. But if the breeding takes place in summer, the litter size is smaller.
- Mating frequency: Litter size is smaller if the female is bred only once. So it's recommended to mate the Labs every other day until the female refuses to mate.
What can you do to increase litter size in Labradors?
While litter size is mostly out of our control, optimal conditions can increase how many puppies Labradors have.
The first thing you should do is feed your Labs a healthy diet throughout their lives. There's no reason to spend extra money on grain-free food because dogs' evolution has given them the ability to digest grains easily. Just make sure you're feeding them one of the high-quality kibbles available in the market.
Apart from a healthy diet, you should also give her enough playtime and exercise to maintain her ideal body weight. For female Labradors, it's 55-70 lbs. (25-32 kg).
Pregnancy drains the mother's body of protein, vitamins, minerals, and energy. You need to satisfy her dietary needs with food rich in fats and carbohydrates. Feeding a low-carb diet during pregnancy leads to increased fetal death and stillbirths. Consult your vet and make sure her diet includes enough vitamins, amino acids, minerals, omega-3 acids, antioxidants, and dietary fiber.
As the mother nears the last three weeks of pregnancy, her dietary needs will increase significantly. This is because the embryonic puppies gain 75 percent of their body weight during this period. Depending on the litter size, she may need one and a half to two times her typical requirement for these few weeks.
Control inbreeding risk
Another thing you control is the coefficient of inbreeding. We've seen that mating closely related Labs results in decreased litter size. So it's the breeder's responsibility to choose suitable Labradors to pair. It would be best if the male and female Lab's last three ancestors are unrelated.
Lastly, you can give your Lab lots of love and attention. She's going through a challenging period, and it's up to you to support her. Doing this doesn't directly increase the litter size, but it keeps the mother happy and enhances her well-being. So go and scratch her behind the ears!
The One-Half Rule
This is a general rule that's usually followed by all mammals. It states that a mother will produce half as many babies as there are nipples on her. Sounds interesting, right?
Statistics back this rule. Most female dogs have eight to ten nipples, and as we've seen, the average litter size is 5.4. Humans, of course, have two. Most mothers give birth to one child at a time, but they may also produce twins occasionally. While it does happen, having more than two babies is rare among humans because nature tries to ensure enough nutrition and nourishment for all the babies.
Now don't start counting your Lab's nipples! This is simply a statistical correlation; it's not a method you can use to predict litter size. The best way to determine litter size is to take your Lab to the vet.
How often do Labradors produce puppies?
As we've discussed, female dogs can go into heat anytime after they're six months old. After the first heat cycle, they will typically go into heat twice a year, which means they can produce puppies every six months.
However, many breeders and veterinarians advise against breeding continuously. They contend that it's hard on the mother's body and decreases the litter size. Accordingly, they allow their female Lab to breed every other heat cycle, which means the mother will give birth to one litter per year.
Others, including one I spoke with on the issue, contend that breeding back to back has physiological benefits for mothers, citing commentary from Dr. Robert Van Hutchinson, a well renowned veterinarian and reproduction specialist.
In an online reproduction seminar, Dr. Hutchinson explained that the female's progesterone levels remain elevated for 60 days during ovulation - regardless of pregnancy. This causes severe stress to the uterine lining, and can lead to long term health issues.
Therefore, skipping seasons prolongs this activity as opposed to breeding season after season and retiring the mother early.
How many puppies Labs have in their lifetime
As we've discussed, a Lab goes into heat twice every year, which means she can give birth to a litter every six months. Suppose a female starts breeding when she's two years old and continues doing so until she's eight. In that case, she would produce 13 litters over her lifetime.
We've also seen that the average number of pups a Labrador produces is 7.6. We know that litter size is affected by several factors and does not stay the same throughout the years. But for argument's sake, let's say our female Lab continues to give birth to seven kids during every heat cycle. So theoretically, a Labrador can give birth to over 90 puppies in her lifetime. Wow!
How long are Labradors pregnant?
When measured from the date of ovulation, gestation lasts for 58-68 days. Since it's difficult to determine the date of ovulation, you cannot know precisely how long your Lab will be pregnant. This is because male sperm can live for 10 to 11 days in the uterine tubes of the female dog.
However, for the most part, you should expect your Lab's gestation period to last for two months, or maybe slightly longer.
Signs of pregnancy in a Labrador
As we've discussed, Labs' gestation period is only about two months. So you don't have a lot of time to notice and interpret the signs. Many pet owners are shocked to find their Lab pregnant in the final days of her pregnancy.
Below are some signs of pregnancy in Labradors. If you start to notice them in your female dog, it could be that she's about to give birth to little fur babies.
- Your dog becomes exhausted quickly or spends more time sleeping
- Loss of appetite (early stages) or increased appetite (later stages)
- She becomes more affectionate, seeking extra attention, and wanting to stay beside you
- Appearing lethargic or depressed and just want to be left alone all the time
- There's mucus discharge from her vulva (occurs about a month after mating)
- Her nipples' size or color changes (happens about a month after mating)
- Her abdomen size increases (noticeable after 40 days)
- She gains weight (starts happening around day 35)
Of course, the best way to determine whether your Lab is pregnant is to take her to a vet. They will perform one of several diagnostic tests to determine if she will become a mother. Abdominal palpation, ultrasound scan, witness relaxing test, and X-rays are the most common ways to check pregnancy.
Breeding Labradors isn't an easy task. You have to invest time and effort to take care of the mother and her puppies properly. Labs usually have five to ten babies per litter, and the average litter size seems to be 7.6.
Factors like the mother's age, health, diet, and the coefficient of inbreeding affect how many puppies Labradors have. We can also influence the litter size to some extent by making sure the female Lab is healthy and by selecting unrelated dogs for mating.
Many breeders mate their Labradors every other heat cycle (once a year); others believe back-to-back breeding to be most effective.