- Brachycephalic breeds remain popular despite awareness of welfare problems associated with brachycephalism.
- Younger people, women, and parents have more positive attitudes toward baby-faced dogs.
- People with the greatest awareness of health issues in these dogs are most likely to have positive attitudes.
One of the great puzzles of contemporary dog-keeping is why people continue to buy brachycephalic dogs despite the significant drawbacks–the tendency of these dogs to suffer poor welfare, their short life expectancy, the range of potential health problems experienced by these dogs, high veterinary costs, and caregiving burden.
Despite these problems, brachycephalic breeds (flat-faced dogs) are soaring in popularity. In 2022, the French bulldog pulled past the Labrador retriever in the American Kennel Club's ranking of most popular dog. The strong consumer interest in these breeds has created a “brachycephalic dog welfare crisis.” Researchers are keen to determine what drives people to acquire these dogs.
At first, researchers thought that consumers of these flat-faced breeds simply didn’t know about the dogs’ various health problems. But thanks to educational campaigns by humane organizations and veterinary groups, public awareness of health problems associated with brachycephalism is relatively high. Moreover, people who are most dedicated to and most likely to acquire brachycephalic dogs are especially likely to be aware of the problems faced by these dogs. What could explain the bizarre paradox that people who love brachycephalic dogs also tend to be the most aware of their potential for suffering? It seems to make no sense.
“The Brachycephalic Paradox,” in the May 12 Applied Animal Behaviour Science issue, explores some possible explanations. Researchers Zsófia Bognár and Enikő Kubinyi surveyed 1,156 respondents in Hungary. They used questionnaire responses to analyze the features of brachycephalic dog enthusiasts, including the relationship between attitudes toward brachycephaly and awareness of the health issues brachycephalic dogs face and what aspects of brachycephalism might be found especially appealing.1
What did the researchers find?
Bognár and Kubinyi found that demographic features influenced attitudes toward brachycephalic dogs. Young people, women, and parents of human children were more likely to have positive attitudes toward brachycephalic breeds compared to older people, men, and people without children. The researchers speculated that this may be related to increased sensitivity to the cute, baby-like features (the so-called infant schema) of flat-faced dogs, including large, rounded heads, big eyes, large ears, and small noses.2
The survey results suggest that higher levels of formal education and dog-related professional expertise were linked with negative attitudes toward brachycephalism. Nevertheless, respondents with positive attitudes toward brachycephalism were generally well-aware of the health problems these dogs face. Indeed, respondents with positive attitudes had better knowledge of the health problems than respondents with negative attitudes.
As Bognár and Kubinyi noted, “Those who liked brachycephalism associated more health problems with it compared to those who disliked it.” Ninety-nine percent of respondents associated brachycephalism with breathing difficulties, ninety percent associated it with dystocia, and eighty-three percent associated it with abnormal teeth. Only a few respondents “associated fewer than four health problems with brachycephalism.”
One possible explanation for this paradoxical result is that owners of flat-faced dogs develop very strong bonds, partly because of the dogs’ neediness and fragility. This close emotional connection may lead to breed loyalty and future acquisition of the same breed.
What should we take away from this research?
Bognár and Kubinyi concluded that providing factual education about brachycephalic dogs' welfare challenges will not discourage people from buying them. Educational campaigns about the health problems of brachycephalic dogs have not, thus far, deterred people from acquiring these breeds, and that’s not likely to change. But continuing education is still important and should focus on several points:
First, we should resist normalizing pain and discomfort in brachycephalic dog breeds. For example, the snuffling sound made by an excited Frenchie is often viewed as a normal and even endearing trait of the breed when it is, in fact, the sound of a dog struggling to breathe through a misshaped snout.
A 2023 study by Rowena Packer and colleagues at the Royal Veterinary College in the UK questioned owners of dogs diagnosed with brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) about their dogs’ health and functioning. BOAS is a chronic, debilitating respiratory syndrome in which soft tissue blocks the airway and makes breathing difficult. More than half of the respondents reported that their dogs had no breathing problems.3 People with brachycephalic dogs should be the first and loudest to resist the normalization of canine discomfort, as they have intimate experience with the struggles these dogs and their caregivers face.
Veterinary professionals, for their part, should be mindful of labeling health problems experienced by brachycephalic dogs as “typical for the breed” or “normal for the breed.” This feeds into the problem of normalizing pain and discomfort. According to the authors, it would be better to label these breeds as “high-risk for suffering.”
We can bear in mind that the imposition of pain on brachycephalic dogs is a choice we make; it is not inevitable, not “just who these dogs are.” We can make different, more compassionate choices.
Finally, people who are committed to buying a brachycephalic breed of dog can help shape these dogs’ futures by choosing the healthiest individuals within these breeds and by demanding accountability from breeders who prioritize aesthetic features over health and well-being.
1. Bognár, Z. and Kubinyi, E. The Brachycephalic Paradox: the relationship between attitudes, demography, personality, health awareness, and dog-human eye contact,
Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2023.105948.
2. Pierce, J. Where Went the Wolf? Aeon Magazine, March 9, 2023. https://aeon.co/essays/breeding-dogs-to-be-cute-and-anthropomorphic-is-….
3. Packer, R., Hendricks, A., and Burn, C. (2012). Do dog owners perceive the clinical signs related to conformational inherited disorders as ‘normal’ for the breed? A potential constraint to improving canine welfare. Animal Welfare, 2023, 21(S1), 81-93. doi:10.7120/096272812X13345905673809