Brachycephalic dog breeds (Canis lupus familiaris), such as English and French bulldogs, pugs, boxer dogs and shih tzus, have increased in popularity over recent years (The Kennel Club, 2017; The Kennel Club, 2015). Between 2013 and 2016, Britain saw a 62% increase in the number of brachycephalic dog breeds registered with the Kennel Club (The Kennel Club 2017; The Kennel Club, 2015). An explanation for this dramatic and continuous rise in demand is the biological response these breeds elicit in humans (Homo sapien), since the large eyes, short muzzle and domed skull and infantile behaviour mimic that of a child, which captures the attention and stimulates the secretion of oxytocin in humans (Borgi & Cirulli, 2016). This, coupled with social media and celebrity endorsements, means that French bulldogs, a brachycephalic breed, are set to become the most popular type of dog in 2017, the only breed to ever outrank the Labrador retriever (Lilja-Maula, 2017; The Kennel Club, 2017; Dhand, Mcgreevy & Teng, 2016).
However, despite the appeal, brachycephaly incites major cause for concern, as it potentially opposes two of the five freedoms in the Animal Welfare Act: the ability to exhibit normal behaviour and the ability to be free from pain, injury and suffering (Gov.uk, 2006). Studies have shown that breeds with shortened muzzles are incapable of many facial communication signals; even bearing teeth is impossible for some breeds, due to heavy and prominent flews and a misshapen jaw, meaning that although dogs are a social species, interaction is challenging (Brubaker & Udell, 2016; Jensen, 2007). Brachycephaly has been compared to asphyxiation, since animals at rest have difficulty breathing and under exertion can suffer from extreme air hunger, which would cause large amounts of unnecessary suffering (Beausoleil & Mellor, 2013). In 2013 a survey determined that 56% of brachycephalic dogs suffer from sleep-related difficulty, 50% from heat intolerance and 88% from exercise intolerance, equating to potentially 41,137 dogs bred that could not exercise without some level of discomfort in 2016 (The Kennel Club 2017; Oechtering, Pohl & Roedler, 2013).
The Kennel Club has played a crucial role in the development of these breeds, and the breed standards of the pug and English bulldog, in particular, had remained unchanged for decades, in contempt of the overwhelming evidence that suggested that it was causing the animals avoidable suffering (Beausoleil & Mellor, 2013; Oechtering, Pohl & Roedler, 2013). In 1882, the breed standard of the pug was laid down, with the recommendations for the muzzle being ‘short, blunt and square’, the eyes to be ‘very large, prominent and globular’ and the head to be ‘massive and round’, with ‘large and deep’ wrinkles (Hutchinson, 1935). These exaggerated breed standards have led to extreme selective breeding, which has created the morphology seen in modern-day brachycephalic breeds (Farrell, Summers & Wiener, 2015; Overall, 2017).
This shortening of the muzzle has been magnified to such an extent that, in 2015, 67% of vets in the United Kingdom reported having patients that required body-altering surgeries such as shortening of the soft palate, removing everted laryngeal saccules or removing nostril tissue, as treatment for brachycephalic airway syndrome (Ravetz, 2016). Brachycephaly does not just cause breathing difficulty; the dogs’ large heads also interfere with the whelping process, as puppies’ skulls are too large to fit through the dam’s birthing canal, leading to a caesarian rate of over 80% for English bulldogs, French bulldogs and Boston terriers (Evans & Adams, 2010).
However, in 2008, many brachiocephalic breeds’ standards were reviewed and altered by The Kennel Club; an example of this is the pug’s, which is now notably less extravagant than the 1882 version (The Kennel Club, 2017). Their ideal muzzle changed to ‘relatively short, with well-open nostrils’, the ideal eye shape became ‘relatively large but never exaggerated’ and the head became ‘relatively large’ with wrinkles that are ‘defined, without exaggeration,’ giving the impression of a dog that is not as likely to suffer from poor welfare standards (Fawcett, 2017; The Kennel Club, 2017).
The Kennel Club also initiated a nationwide Breed Watch scheme in 2009, which monitors breeds that are deemed at risk of health concerns that could be detrimental to both the individual and the entire breed should the animal reproduce (The Kennel Club, 2009). High profile breeds include the pug, Pekingese, English bulldog and French bulldog, and should any individual of these breeds show difficulty breathing, have pinched nostrils, incorrect dentition, excessively large eyes and an incomplete blink, a heavy over-nose wrinkle or dermatitis in folds of skin, they will be disqualified from dog shows (Farrell, Summers & Wiener, 2015; The Kennel Club, 2009). Category Three dogs, which include the English bulldog, Pekingese and pug, must be subject to a veterinary assessment at dog shows should they win their class, and if they show any signs of pain, suffering or otherwise compromised welfare, they will be stripped of their win (The Kennel Club, 2009). If these dogs are no longer able to win at conformation shows, they will have no benefit to the breeds’ gene pools, so are unlikely to be bred from, beginning the transition away from inherent breed related deformities (Advocates for Animals, 2006).
Only 2% of dogs in the United Kingdom participate in dog shows, so this may not immediately appear relevant to the wider dog owning community, however more than 31,000 puppies are bred from show stock dogs every year, and with more than 4.6 million viewers watching Crufts in 2015, the way that the top show dogs are portrayed to the general public can be heavily influential (The Kennel Club, 2015). Fluctuations in breed popularity have been recorded annually after Westminster Dog Show, in the United States, dependent on the breeds that win classes, proving that social influence can add significant prestige to breeds (Acerbi, Girhlanda & Herzog, 2014; Acerbi, Ghirlanda & Serpell, 2013). If brachycephalic dog breeds with fewer visible health concerns and a longer muzzle are depicted at Crufts, the general public may seek out dogs of similar physiology (Dhand, Mcgreevy & Teng, 2016; Acerbi, Ghirlanda & Serpell, 2013).
The Kennel Club has also placed restrictions on dog breeding, stating that if a bitch had delivered two litters by caesarean section, any subsequent litters she may produce will not be eligible for registration under their organisation (The Kennel Club, 2017). Not being Kennel Club registered would significantly reduce the monetary value of the puppies, meaning less incentive to those selling them, and potentially discouraging the breeding of dogs that cannot reproduce naturally (Overall, 2017; The Kennel Club, 2017).
Despite this new plan set forth by the Kennel Club to improve the welfare of brachycephalic breeds, when a certain physical characteristic, such as brachycephaly, becomes desirable due to fashion trends, the general public is less willing to research dog breeds and health, instead purchasing pets for appearance over function (Dhand, Mcgreevy & Teng, 2016; Acerbi, Girhlanda & Herzog, 2014; Acerbi, Ghirlanda & Serpell, 2013). This is supported by data showing that, against expectations, the most popular dog breeds are prone to significantly more health disorders and behavioral problems when compared to less-common breeds (Acerbi, Girhlanda & Herzog, 2014; Acerbi, Ghirlanda & Serpell, 2013). Owners also disregard brachycephalic-related disorders, in the belief that they are normal for the breed and therefore acceptable (Burn, Hendricks & Packer, 2012). Identifying these disorders as nothing more than breed traits is damaging to individual dogs, since serious welfare concerns are overlooked, and is damaging for the entire breed, since it means that animals with debilitating conditions are still permitted to reproduce and pass on their traits to future generations (Burn, Hendricks & Packer, 2012). This is a phenomenon described by Dr. Temple Grandin, whereby the welfare standard drops and eventually is accepted as being normal, allowing for even poorer welfare to develop and eventually become acceptable (Grandin & Johnson, 2005).
As these breeds become more popular in the future, with the Kennel Club’s change in breed guidance, the percentage of brachycephalic breeds suffering with ailments and compromised welfare may reduce. This change is expected to take a long time before it is clearly visible, and would require the compliancy of all dog breeders, not just those involved in conformation showing. However, the general public’s favour of fashion over function of dog breeds, and the demand for immediate satisfaction instead of waiting for a good quality puppy may outweigh the Kennel Club’s efforts, causing a welfare dilemma for these dog breeds in the future.
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(images from petguide.com and dogtime.com)