American Chesapeake Club Health Survey

©2004, Compiled by the ACC Health Committee
Susan Hyde, 2004 Chair

 In 2003, the American Chesapeake Club (ACC) Health Committee was charged with determining the most pressing health concerns affecting Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  The goals of the survey were to help the ACC prioritize requests for health-related research funding and to provide accurate health data for breeders and owners of Chesapeakes.  The survey, which covered Chesapeakes owned in the past 10 years, were made available in the fall of 2003.

The ACC survey provides a wealth of information about the current health status of Chesapeakes.  Although the values obtained for the incidences of different conditions are subject to errors inherent in any survey, it is important to note that a total of 3,564 animals are included in the survey.  This represents a significant proportion of Chesapeakes living during the last 10 years.  Slightly more than half of all respondents have been involved with Chesapeakes for 10 years or more, and approximately 40% of respondents have bred at least one litter.  Detailed descriptions of survey responses are provided below, but there are a few points that we would like to highlight here. 

The ACC Health Committee thanks volunteers Mitchel Horowitz and Lisa Van Loo for the countless hours spent calculating and analyzing the data.

Those who returned surveys have had Chesapeakes for an average of 13 years. Responding households represent a total of 1,666 dogs in current residence – an average of 2.6 animals per household.

55.5% of all respondents have been involved with Chesapeake Bay Retrievers for 10 years or more. Nearly 25% have been involved with the breed for 20 years or more; 23% have been involved for less than 5 years.

Considering the 10-year range of this survey, this expands to include a total of 3564 animals, or an average of 5.5 per responding household.

Nearly 65% of households own 1-2 Chesapeakes. There are few large kennels of Chesapeakes, and this is reflected by the 13.4% who have more than 5 dogs in residence. Not all large kennels are breeders; several are rescue kennels or foster homes with several dogs in residence at any given time.

While the majority of homes reflected in this survey have only had 1 or 2 dogs in the last 10 years, nearly a third have had more than 5 Chesapeakes during that 10-year span. Given that only 13.5% house five or more dogs at any 1 time, this number may reflect re-homing of dogs, foster care turnovers, or other causes for the number of dogs cycling through homes or dying during this survey period.

The average number of litters bred is just over 7, considering respondents who produced one or more litters during the past 10 years. The average litter size reported is just under ten (9.6 puppies).

More than half the respondents have never bred a litter. This may be part of the reason why certain conditions are underreported. Some conditions, such as reproductive problems, certain eye conditions, and orthopedic problems are only discovered when an animal is being screened prior to breeding. Dogs that are not intended for breeding purposes are far less likely to have hip and elbow x-rays taken, or eye exams, for instance, so asymptomatic problems will go undetected and unreported.

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers have relatively large litters, and this is borne out by the statistic above. 61.3% of litters in the survey population have eight or more puppies.

Nearly half of respondents say they hunt with their Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. Among competition events, similar numbers (roughly four in ten) participate in conformation shows, hunt tests and / or obedience trials. Field trials and agility are less common, with participation reported by about one in six survey participants.

Three in ten consider themselves to be breeders. However, over four in ten reported having at least one litter, mostly comprised of those having only a single litter.

The majority of Chesapeakes are kept as companion animals, along with other activities or involvement their owners may also engage in. This is also reflected in the household number of animals. Again, few keep Chesapeakes strictly as kennel dogs.

Beyond ownership and companionship, hunting, hunt tests, shows, and obedience have similar percentages of involvement. This reflects the breed’s versatility and multiple uses; dogs used for hunting may participate in hunt tests during the off season to keep their skills honed. The fact that hunt tests and shows have nearly the same percentage is borne out by the number of dogs titled in both disciplines. These percentages reflect considerable overlap in some instances.

Longevity in Chesapeake Bay Retrievers is just over 9 years on average. On a positive note, one in four dogs live for 13 years or more. However, one in five don’t survive past their fifth year. Most respondents indicate dogs dying younger than the total for the population as a whole. Future surveys may need to identify the reasons behind this trend.

While the majority feed dry diets, the numbers feeding BARF and prescription diets may indicate a trend toward dogs requiring special needs. This statistic should be read along with the one on digestive system and skin problems. Future surveys may wish to cross-survey this issue to see if there is a correlation.

Top 15 Most Frequently Report Disease by

Those Perceived as Most Common

Most Commonly Reported


Perceived as Most Common


Hip dysplasia


Hip dysplasia


Dog aggression


Progressive retinal atrophy






Umbilical hernia




Submissive Urination




Dry skin / flakiness / itchiness




False pregnancy




Chronic ear infections




Hot spots


Elbow dysplasia








ACL tear / rupture


General aggressiveness






Degenerative myelopathy






Bilateral cataracts




These two preceding charts show perceptions of those responding to the survey. Some of these perceptions may be as a result of ACC attempts to educate Chesapeake Bay Retriever owners about issues facing the breed. Not surprisingly, participants in the survey considered hip dysplasia to be the most common and the most serious condition in our breed. PRA is ranked second on both frequency and seriousness, followed by seizures and cancer.

The club can use the most commonly reported statistic as a basis for education in the future. Perceptions can be swayed by one or two persons in an internet discussion, for instance, yet these discussions may only reflect what is happening in one isolated part of the population, rather than the population as a whole. Funds for research need to be allocated in a way that benefits the largest number of dogs and the people who own them.

75% of respondents keep Chesapeakes for companionship. The 26.9% reported as having  behavior problems is a reflection of that fact. Only 30% of respondents consider themselves to be breeders, yet nearly 24% of dogs reported on in this survey encountered some kind of reproductive problem, and 22.1% reported musculoskeletal problems. These three areas, behavior, reproduction, and musculoskeletal are the 3 most common areas where problems are encountered.

Dog aggressiveness and general aggressiveness were reported most frequently as aggression problems, while submissive urination and general shyness were the 2 most frequently encountered submissiveness problems.

Sound sensitivity, water freaking, and being noisy while working were all reported at similar frequencies. All of these can interfere with a dog’s ability to work.

The  Most commonly reported reproductive problem in Chesapeake Bay Retrievers is false pregnancy. Chessie bitches can show a wide range of symptoms of false pregnancy, from barely noticeable, to complete pregnancy signs, including heavy lactation. Irregular heat cycles are also reported. 4.3% of respondents report either an excessively long cycle between heats, or very short cycles. Taken all together, the tendency toward irregular cycles and false pregnancies can lead to difficulty in breeding bitches, and knowing if they are pregnant. Additionally, the hormonal imbalances the create these irregular cycles can also lead to other conditions, such as pyometra. This is reflected in the 1.7% pyometra rate.

Other reproductive problems that can be frustrating for breeders include difficulty breeding, (including both behavioral and physical components), poor mothering/aggression toward puppies, and in males, sudden, complete sterility.

These statistics were calculated against the entire reported dog population, including neutered/spayed dogs. Calculating against only intact animals would show a higher percentage in all reproductive categories. Since ability to reproduce is essential in maintaining a healthy, viable breed, breeders need to breed with an eye toward reproductive health in addition to performance, conformation, and overall health factors.

It’s not surprising that hip dysplasia is at the top of the list for skeletal problems, and that it is also considered the most common health problem facing the breed. OFA statistics show that 22% of Chesapeake x-rays submitted show some sign(s) of hip dysplasia. Stated another way, nearly 1-in-4 Chesapeakes will have some form of hip dysplasia.

What is of interest is the difference between the numbers reported in this survey, and the numbers documented by OFA. This could be a reflection of the responding population; most responders have been in the breed for less than 5 years, are 1 or 2 dog owners, and do not consider themselves dog breeders. People of this demographic are less likely to perform hip x-rays on dogs unless the dog is showing symptoms. Many Chesapeakes live their entire lives with hip dysplasia without displaying symptoms, so could simply have been missed.

OFA has elbow dysplasia data showing 5.1% of Chesapeakes have this condition.  Survey respondents show less than 1%. Again, this could be attributed to sampling error.

2.4% of dogs in the survey were reported with ACL tears or ruptures. This could be explained by increased participation in performance events, or by improved diagnostic techniques. In any case, owners and breeders need to be aware of the tendency toward ACL injuries within the breed.

Skin allergy is the most reported condition in this category. Chronic dry skin is a close second. Dry skin can have many causes, including diet, environment (dry heat in winter, for instance), parasites, and even undiagnosed allergies. Our breed is one which maintains high oiliness in the coat. It is important for breeders to educate puppy buyers about the need for higher protein/fat for our breed, and for higher quality fat sources. Also equally important is good instruction on bathing frequency and type of shampoos to use or avoid.

5.3% of dogs were reported as living to age 12 and above, with more females than males achieving longevity.

The infectious diseases reported most frequently are a reflection of the “outdoorsy” nature of the breed. Lyme disease, coccidia, and giardia are all commonly found in outdoor settings.

Long coat and soft coat are reported at similar frequencies. A long coat or borderline long coat is usually soft as well, so there may have been a number of dogs reported in both categories.

Submissive urination is the most commonly reported urinary tract issue. Incontinence, both among intact and spayed animals, is the next most common. The fact that the 5 most commonly encountered problems all occur mostly in Chesapeake bitches may indicate an overall urinary tract construction problem that needs investigation. In addition, submissive urination may have both physical and behavioral components, which is why it is reported twice, under behavioral conditions, and again under urinary conditions.

It is interesting to note the difference between males and females with respect to frequency of occurrence of eye diseases. Eye exams are rarely performed on dogs that are not intended for breeding. Since more females are bred from than males, more are likely to have their eyes CERF examined, and “hidden” eye conditions, such as cataracts and distichiasis will be discovered during those exams. These conditions are rarely discovered outside of a CERF-based exam. For those conditions which have noticeable symptoms (such as entropion and PRA), the division is close to 50/50 between the sexes.

The numbers for PRA incidence are consistent with data from OptiGen. Extrapolation of OptiGen data shows PRA rate in the tested population as less than 2%.

Undershot bites and missing teeth are reported at similar frequency. It is encouraging that such a small percentage of respondents report undershot bites, which have been a problem in the breed in the past. Missing teeth often go unnoticed as they are not taken in account during any kind of competition. Yet, the rate of dogs reported as having missing teeth is nearly the same as that for undershot.

Seizures were reported in 3.5% of the responding population, with more males being reported with seizures than females. Degenerative myelopathy is reported with more frequency in females than in males. Neurological conditions such as these can be devastating to deal with. It is encouraging to note these low incidence rates.

Chronic ear infections are the most commonly reported ear problem in the breed. Hanging ears keep air from circulating in and drying the ear canal. In a breed that loves to spend time swimming, this often leads to ear infections. Chronic ear infections also can be a symptom of allergies or endocrine imbalances. Future surveys may need to explore if there is a correlation between ear infections and other conditions within the breed.

Deafness is reported in 1.2% of the population. Future surveys may need to be designed to determine different causes for deafness (such as age, infection, or exposure to gunfire) vs. congenital (hereditary) deafness.

Aural hematomas are generally caused by trauma from scratching the ear, shaking the head, or banging the ear against a hard object. Von Willebrand’s Disease has been identified in the breed. For dogs that develop recurring cases of aural hematomas, a simple blood test to identify this clotting insufficiency would be wise.

The overall incidence of cancers in the breed would appear low, based on this survey. Lymphoma was the most-reported form of cancer, followed by mast cell tumors, liver cancers, and breast cancers, which all occur at approximately the same rates.

Bloat and Gastric Dilitation Volvulus (GDV, also known as torsion) combines occurred in 1.7% of the population. Compare this to the 2.5% that show some form of immune-mediated GI problem (allergy or IBD). This, in combination with the 4.5% reported with skin allergies (there may be some overlap with the food allergy group), should be cause for concern among breeders.

Our breed has a history and a reputation for being hale, hardy, and relatively problem-free. We need to ensure this remains so, by watching the incidence of allergy and other immune-mediated problems in the breed.

Failure to thrive was reported about equally in male and female puppies. The other categories of problems listing various deformities or failure to close properly occur at much lower rates. Overall, incidences of puppy problems are very low compared to other reproductive problems within the breed.

Hypothyroidism is the most commonly encountered endocrine problem reported in this survey. More and more breeders are utilizing OFA’s thyroid certification process, so the incidence of hypothyroidism will be easier to track in future years. All other endocrine diseases are reported at less than 1%.

Heart murmurs were listed as the most common cardiovascular condition reported. Congestive heart failure was listed second. CHF can be secondary to other conditions, such as heart murmurs, infections, or the aging process. Utilization of heart clearances on breeding stock should keep heart conditions in check.

Some young dogs can display low-grade heart murmurs which disappear as the dog matures. Additionally, very athletic dogs can show unusual heartbeats (“athletic heart”). Veterinarians unused to puppies or adults of working athletic dogs may misdiagnose. Any diagnosis of a heart murmur or other condition should be followed up with an examination by a veterinary cardiologist with athletic dog experience to rule out non-disease causes for heartbeat abnormalities.

Vaccine reactions were reported at much higher rates than other immune-mediated problems. Immune system problems were more common in female dogs than in male dogs. This is consistent with veterinary findings as well as human medicine, where females experience higher incidence rates than males. Immune problems can be either primary (usually genetic), or secondary to another disease process. Since diagnosing and treating these problems is difficult, time-consuming and expensive, it is reassuring that these disorders occur with low frequency within the reporting population.

No breathing problems were encountered at higher than 0.3%. This is very low, and encouraging that our breed does not have respiratory problems as some other breeds do.


American Chesapeake Club, 2004.