Choosing Dogs that can Breathe
Why are brachycephalic breeds so popular despite health problems?
Posted Feb 18, 2018
A recent campaign from the British Veterinary Association, #BreedtoBreathe, highlights the breathing problems that breeds of dog, cat and rabbit with flat faces suffer from. The technical term for this kind of breed is brachycephalic, which means they have a short, squashed face. Unfortunately, many people find this look cute, and Pugs, Bulldogs and French Bulldogs seem to be popular with advertisers at the moment. Hence the campaign to raise awareness of these issues and ask advertisers not to use these breeds.
President of the BVA, John Fishwick, said,
“Many of these ‘cute’ pets will struggle with serious and often life-limiting health problems. Whilst many people perceive the squashed wrinkly faces of flat-faced dogs as appealing, in reality, dogs with short muzzles can struggle to breathe.”
A similar campaign from the Australian Veterinary Association is called Love is Blind and aims to increase awareness of issues of brachycephaly, short limbs and excessive skin wrinkling in some breeds of dog.
While Pugs, Bulldogs and French Bulldogs are in the top ten most popular breeds in the UK, only the latter two make it into the American top 10, while Pugs are number 32 on the AKC's list of popular breeds in 2016.
But why are some breeds so popular despite having common health problems? When I looked at why people choose a particular type of dog in 2016, I wrote,
“People don’t think, “I want to get a dog with eye problems who can hardly breathe.” They probably think, “This type of dog is cute!””
It seems many people choose these breeds for their looks and are not aware of the health issues faced by brachycephalic breeds.
Many people think snorting and snoring is normal
In a 2012 study, Rowena Packer et al asked owners of dogs affected by BOAS (Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome) whether their dog snored, snorted or wheezed while sleeping or during exercise. While 68% said yes, 58% of owners said the dog did not have a breathing problem. This suggests many people think it is normal for dogs like Pugs and Bulldogs to snort or wheeze.
Packer et al write (p.90),
“The concept of disorders being ‘normal’ for certain demographics is a likely constraint to improving the welfare of clinically affected animals, because if something is considered ‘normal’ then there may be a perception of no requirement to change it. The phrase ‘normal for the breed’, used by veterinarians, pet owners and breeders alike, indicates a culture of acceptance of certain problems in certain types of dog.”
Appearance is one of the main reasons people choose brachycephalic breeds
People get dogs for all kinds of reasons, and it’s no surprise that appearance is one of them. But the relative importance of appearance varies depending on the breed.
A Danish study (Sandøe et al 2017) looked at four small breeds of dog. The owners of French Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were most influenced by the breed’s distinctive appearance and personality, while this was less important to people with Cairn Terriers and Chihuahuas. But the owners who were most influenced by distinctive appearance or breed attributes also had a strong attachment to their pet. This suggests people have an emotional response to these breeds.
Another study (Packer et al 2017) found appearance is one of the main reasons people choose French Bulldogs, Bulldogs and Pugs (all brachycephalic breeds), along with being a good companion breed. Being a good breed for children and the right size for people’s lifestyle were also influential. In contrast, people who chose non-brachycephalic breeds did not highlight appearance as the most important factor in their decision; instead, the breed’s popularity, the person’s childhood experiences as well as encouragement to exercise, it being generally healthy and having working ability were all important reasons given.
This study also found that people who got a brachycephalic dog were more likely than those with a non-brachycephalic breed to have used a puppy-selling website. They were less likely to have seen the puppy’s mom and/or dad (12.3% had seen neither vs 4.8% of owners of non-brachycephalic breeds). And they were less likely to have asked about health checks when getting their dog. In the UK where this study took place, a campaign around “Where’s mum?” has encouraged people to see a puppy with the mom before purchasing it to help ensure the puppy comes from a responsible breeder rather than a puppy mill.
This research suggests those people who are more likely to choose a brachycephalic breed may also be the hardest to reach with animal welfare messages since they place more importance on appearance and less on health.
The BVA is working to persuade advertisers not to use these breeds in advertising campaigns. While these breeds are used in ads because they are popular, the majority of breeds on the top 10 list are not brachycephalic and could make good alternatives. It makes sense to target advertisers, since we already know movies can affect the popularity of dogs (as explained here by Hal Herzog).
There are so many different breeds of dog precisely because appearance – as well as working abilities – are important to dog owners. No one wants to see Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Pugs disappear; they are lovely breeds with great personalities. But they should not have to suffer for their looks, and something needs to be done to improve the health of these breeds.
For people wanting an alternative to a Pug, Bulldog or French Bulldog, it seems they will be looking for cute looks as well as a friendly personality that makes for a great companion.
The Cairn Terrier was chosen as one of the breeds in Sandøe et al’s study precisely because it is small but generally healthy. Perhaps 2018 will be a good year for the Cairn Terrier. What kind of small, friendly, and non-brachycephalic breed do you like best?
Packer, R. M. A., Hendricks, A., & Burn, C. 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-The UFAW Journal, 21(1), 81.
Packer, R. M. A., Murphy, D., & Farnworth, M. J. (2017). Purchasing popular purebreds: investigating the influence of breed-type on the pre-purchase motivations and behaviour of dog owners.
Sandøe P,, Kondrup SV,, Bennett PC,, Forkman B,, Meyer I,, Proschowsky HF,, Serpell, JA,, & Lund, TB (2017). Why do people buy dogs with potential welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inherited disease? A representative study of Danish owners of four small dog breeds. PLOSOne