It’s no secret that the UK is mad for short faced dogs such as Pugs and French Bulldogs and there’s no denying that they’re cute. However, this cuteness comes at a price...
What we know
The veterinary term for these short-nosed breeds is ‘brachycephalic’ and it’s not just dogs that are affected; cats such as Persians and rabbits such as Netherland dwarfs show the same attributes. The British Veterinary Association is concerned that the rapid rise in popularity of these breeds has led to “a population-based increase of ill health and compromised welfare in these breed types”. Problems arise because when dogs are bred for snubber faces, this creates anatomical defects of the head, in particular the upper airway. This is known as brachycephalic airway disease (BOAS). Not all individuals of these ‘at risk’ breeds will develop severely debilitating BOAS but incidence and severity of the disease are increasing at an alarming rate.
So what’s actually going on?
The skull is selectively bred to become shorter therefore the skeletal muscles also shorten. Yet, the soft tissues contained within the skull show no corresponding decrease in size.
Problems that have been identified are:
- Narrow nostrils – known as ‘stenotic nares’ are the easiest clinical sign to detect. They cause a reduction in airflow as the animal attempts to breathe. This means that brachycephalic dogs often have to rely more on breathing through their mouths...
- Elongated soft palate – this obstructs the entrance to the windpipe (trachea) and forms a ‘seal’ at the back of the throat.
- Hypoplastic trachea – the windpipe is narrower, again restricting airflow..
- Laryngeal saccules collapse – all the resistance to airflow further up causes the sacs of the larynx (voice box) to be sucked into the airway and cause further obstruction, this becomes a vicious cycle!
Impact on welfare
The problems outlined above lead to a severe difficulty breathing. This is why bulldogs and similar breeds make very loud breathing noises (including snoring!) and are often compared to trains or pigs! While this may be endearing, it isn’t normal and it compromises the welfare of the dog, as well as decreasing its ability to exercise. It also severely increases their susceptibility to heat. Related problems include eye disease (as the skull is shortened the eyes become abnormally exposed and ‘bulging’), an inability to mate or give birth naturally (nearly 100% of bulldogs are born by caesarean section), skin infections and dental problems.
So what can you do to help?
- First and foremost, consider if a brachycephalic breed is right for you. Dogs such as pugs and bulldogs have lovely, gentle personalities and can make great family pets. However, you should seriously consider the health issues they are likely to encounter and if you are able to support these. If you want your dog to go on long walks, runs or hikes, avoid brachycephalics as they can’t cope with this level of exercise. Furthermore, it pays to be prepared, about 95-98% of dogs are improved by surgery, however these procedures can cost around £4,000. Insurance can greatly help with these costs but be sure to check your policy covers breed-associated disease. Felcana can monitor your dog’s activity post-surgery and during rehabilitation. This will show you how they’re getting on, particularly in terms of any improvements in exercise tolerance.
- If you decide you still want to go ahead and get one of these breeds, please source them responsibly. The British Veterinary Association called for breeders to consider welfare as their number one priority, not supplying puppies to meet demand. Find a breeder with a good reputation, that is following the necessary breeder schemes and be prepared to wait for the right puppy. As with all puppies avoid those advertised on buy/sell websites with no other provenance as they may be linked to puppy farms or may even have been illegally imported to meet demand. You should always see the puppy with their mum and preferably their dad too.
- Manage their weight! Researchers at the University of Cambridge found obesity to be significantly associated with BOAS. Fat tissue causes further obstruction and decreased fitness puts more strain on an already struggling body. Due to their reduced exercise tolerance this will probably mean managing weight by controlling their caloric intake.
- Make lifestyle adjustments, be very careful not to over-do the exercise and have an action plan in case your dog overheats. It’s advised that dogs are walked early in the morning or late at night. It would be wise to discuss with your vet the amount of exercise your dog should have. Felcana can monitor your pet’s activity and ensure they’re not over-doing it! Be mindful that very stressful or exciting experiences could exacerbate symptoms so try and predict and manage these before they become a problem – introduce exciting things slowly and plan for stressful nights such as bonfire night (for tips on coping with fireworks check out our guide)!
- Spread awareness! People don’t keep these dogs to be cruel, we have pets because we love them, but many people aren’t aware of the extent to which these dogs suffer. Try and educate without being patronising or judgemental, advice might be particularly welcomed by those planning to get a new dog and wanting to know the pros/cons of certain breeds.
Effect of the media
Brachycephalic breeds have been in the media for years – think Churchill the bulldog – however, it’s their rise to fame on social media that has seen demand spike and health fall. With famous owners such as Lady Ga Ga and Holly Willoughby posting about their beloved pets it’s easy to see why the Kennel Club has seen French Bulldog registrations increase by 47% from 2015-2016 alone (a 2,747% increase since 2007!), and with imports and unregistered litters the number is likely to be much higher! However, with a growing awareness of BOAS (e.g. Catharine Tate’s documentary ‘Saving the British Bulldog’) and the BVA’s 2018 statement, companies such as Disney are facing a backlash from the veterinary community and dog lovers. Disney’s latest blockbuster film sees ‘Patrick’ the pug getting into all kinds of mischief, however, welfare advocates fear the film will have a similar effect to ‘Finding Nemo’ back in 2003 which saw sales of clownfish soar. The Brachycephalic Working Group (BWG), comprised of academics, breed experts and veterinary specialists raised these concerns with Disney who agreed to a number of concessions in an attempt to mitigate the potential negative effects of the film. Action taken included adding a welfare message in the credits, distribution of information leaflets, no pugs dressed in human clothes used in advertising, no associated pug merchandise/memorabilia and the inclusion of the BWG in development of future movies that prominently feature animals.
Clearly Disney have done a lot to try and limit the risk to animal welfare due to their movie but is it all too little too late? We’ve brought brachycephalic breeds into the world and we have a moral responsibility as animal lovers to ensure our pet’s live happy and healthy lives. So please think carefully about what dog would best fit your lifestyle before following the trends. While most breeds of dog are more susceptible to some diseases than others, coping with breathing problems is a huge commitment in terms of both money and time and can be potentially fatal. So while you may have your heart set on a pug or a Frenchie, perhaps consider some of these other breeds of comparable size and with similarly lovely temperaments:
Love the ‘bat ears’ of the Frenchie? Their longer-faced counterparts have the same comical trait and are known for their inability to bark – replacing it with a ‘yodelling’ sound!
2. Cocker spaniel
This energetic and loveable breed is popular with families. Or perhaps consider the slightly larger field spaniel now considered a ‘vulnerable’ native breed.
Unfortunately, the queen doesn’t take to social media to endorse her favourite breed and recent years have seen the number of corgis in the UK drop dramatically, they’re now considered a vulnerable native breed.
4. Mix it up!
Cross breeds are often healthier than their pure-bred counterparts as they benefit from a larger genepool. However, as the Kennel Club doesn’t ‘assure’ breeders for crosses be sure to do your research to avoid those trying to make a bit of money out of the latest ‘fashionable’ cross. Perhaps consider a rescue dog, the centre will work closely with you to find a pooch that suits your lifestyle – check out our top tips for adopting here!
This blog was written by Emily Hopgood, Veterinary Student from the University of Cambridge, 03/08/2018.