When your Frenchie or pug needs more plastic surgery than the average Kardashian just to breathe, something has gone wrong. Wunderdog asks what we can do help flat-faced dogs and curb the unhealthy puppy trade
Googly eyes with malfunctioning lids, a flat nose over a huge underbite, a deformed spine ending in a kinked tail and skin folds deep enough for itchy, smelly pyoderma to develop: these are the markers of a type of dog with a lifetime of health issues – and also the type of dog that has experienced a phenomenal rise in popularity.
Brachycephalic dogs, such as French bulldogs, pugs and Boston terriers, can cost around £20,000 in vets’ fees over their short lifetime – their many health problems due to inbreeding have almost halved their life expectancy compared to 10 to 13 years for dogs in general. A look at the X-rays taken by the Brachycephalic Obstructive Airways Syndrome (BOAS) research group at Cambridge University (see above) makes the level of abnormality abuntantly clear. Insurer MoreThan reports flat-faced breeds frequently suffer from respiratory, spinal, skin and eye problems – often early in life – and each condition can cost thousands of pounds to treat. Many of these problems require plastic surgery – so perhaps their rise in popularity is a fitting reflection of our time.
The Kennel Club reports a 193% increase in the number of pugs and a whopping 3,104% rise in the number of French bulldogs registered with the organisation between 2007 and 2016. The dogs may be sweet natured, family friendly and reminiscent of babies with their big eyes and short, chubby bodies, but that comes at a price to their health and well-being.
The march of the little snorters is in no small part to blame on our media environment – from fashion to advertising to social channels. A survey by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) revealed vets believe almost half their clients (49%) with brachycephalic dogs were swayed by social media. At the end of last year, the Brachycephalic Working Group, which is made up of vets, animal welfare organisations, scientists and dog breed clubs, criticised celebrities for promoting these dogs and wrote to companies urging them to stop using these breeds in their advertising. Brands such as Costa Coffee, Halifax and Heinz have promised to listen. The BVA has also started the #breedtobreathe campaign, urging vets, vet nurses and dog lovers in general to “help challenge the pervasiveness of these ‘cute’ images” that sway buyers of designer dogs.
But as long as noted dog experts such as Lady Gaga, Zoella, David Beckham and Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele promote their squashy fur babies via social media – and in the case of Gucci through its fashion collections and even its Year of the Dog emoji – the campaign to stop the demand for unhealthy pooches continues. (Gucci did not respond to a request for comment.) A rare fashionable beacon of hope is US label Noah, which created a T-shirt for Dover Street Market's Year of The Dog collection, featuring prints of the evolving skull of the English bulldog.
In fairness, it is not just the media that is to blame. Dr Rowena Packer, BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) research fellow in brain health and behaviour at the Royal Veterinary College, has studied the pathological bonding between owners and chronically ill dogs.
“Owners of baby-like dogs love the level of dependency on them,” she explains. “Owners would buy them again, despite having been through hell. Being unhealthy doesn’t seem to put them off – 90% said they would buy them again, but only 10% would recommend them to friends or family.
“Breaking this bond is very difficult. As a vet, it’s hard to say to someone who has just lost their bulldog ‘please don’t buy them again’. Frenchies and pugs only live for around five to six years, so they might buy them again relatively soon. The problem might be here to stay.”
Rowena has worked with brachycephalic dogs for the best part of a decade, and she believes their ownership is becoming less and less excusable: “It looks like owners know from the outset – but they still buy them.”
So, what can owners actually do, apart from reviewing their social media habits?
1. Get real
“Owners need to get their head out of the sand – many are in chronic denial about their dog’s health,” explains Rowena. “Beware of the signs: breathing is very important, obviously, so don’t pass off anything such as wheezing, sneezing or snoring as ‘normal for the breed’. Pugs should be silent when they breathe.
“Unhealthy, collapsing airways are a progressive disease. If owners leave it too long and only go to the vet on a hot day or after a long walk, when the dog is having major breathing difficulties, the airways may have collapsed more. Getting in there early and being vigilant is very important.”
2. Get fit and ditch the fancy dress
Another key point for Rowena is the weight of the dog: “Obesity exacerbates the problem, which is difficult, because people see them as chubby and find it quite cute. Being overweight has been normalised – but they should have a waist when you view them from above.”
A pet hate for Rowena is the dressed-up pug: “The head and neck need to be free. I can’t think of any circumstance where a pug or Frenchie would need clothes.”
She recommends a harness to avoid further stress on the dog’s airways that a collar would produce.
3. Demand healthier pups
Without a doubt, curbing the flat-faced dog population would be preferable, or at the very least breeding healthier puppies. And although it may be easy to lay blame at The Kennel Club’s door, Rowena believes there are a lot of stakeholders.
“Some breeders breed for Crufts, and I think there is work to be done on breed standards,” she says. “But as puppy buyers, we all have influence on the supply. When you buy for extreme looks, you are playing a part in it. Get a puppy with more moderate looks with a slightly longer muzzle, fewer wrinkles, less chunky, wider nostrils. Breeders will breed for that demand.”
4. Vets, speak up
Vets and vet nurses also have a part to play by speaking up more and suggesting alternative breeds. Rowena says: “There are alternatives for that lifestyle, so vets should suggest other dogs of that size that are good with kids: terriers are far healthier – Border or Cairn terriers, for example – but also toy breeds, such as Lhasa Apsos, Tibetan spaniels or more moderate versions of Pekinese. These are all very good companions, and they don’t have that many health issues.”
For as long as owners buy into a celebrity-endorsed beauty standard, it is up to vets and rescue centres to pick up the pieces of this trade in unhealthy puppies. In 2017, London-based animal welfare charity Mayhew had five times as many brachycephalic breeds brought in than in the previous year. In the first month of 2018 alone, seven French bulldogs were handed in – all were used for breeding and all had chronic health issues, including skin conditions, dental problems and an inverted tail.
The bitter irony is, of course, that fashion and celebrities feed on exclusivity, luxury and beauty. While the latter is subjective, the ubiquity of flat-faced dogs and their poor genetic make-up hardly make for a desirable purchase. Time to exchange vacuous celebrity toys with true individuality – like a one-off cross breed, ideally from a rescue centre. Because good genes and kindness never go out of style.