The truth behind brachycephalic breeds - appearance over welfare?
The squishy face, the short and cuddly body, the big adoring eyes – these are some of the many features that attract people to breeds such as pugs, French bulldogs, British bulldogs, Persian cats and Scottish fold cats.
These breeds of animals have captured the hearts of animal lovers worldwide, including New Zealanders, but this love is blind to the often severe health issues that compromise these animals’ wellbeing and force them to suffer because of their appearance. Earlier this year, after lengthy consultation with a range of animal experts, including the SPCA and the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA), Trade Me announced that it will no longer be allowing three brachycephalic breeds (pugs, French bulldogs, and British bulldogs) to be sold through its website. In this article we take a look at the health problems that burden these brachycephalic breeds, and why veterinary professionals and animal lovers are standing up worldwide to call for change.
What does brachycephalic mean?
Brachycephalic or flat-faced breeds of animals have become a popular choice of companion. ‘Brachy’ means ‘shortened’ and ‘cephalic’ means ‘head’; brachycephalic breeds have skull bones that are shortened in length, which gives the animal’s face and nose a flat, or ‘squishy faced’, appearance.
The shortened bones of the face and nose change the animal’s anatomy and the relationship of the bones to the soft tissue structures around them; some of these changes can cause physical problems for the affected animal. Brachycephalic actually means ‘short face’ and relates to all animals with short snouts and the ‘squished face’ look. While the term brachycephalic is commonly used to refer to dog breeds such as pugs and bulldogs, there are also brachycephalic breeds of other species, such as cats (including persians, British shorthairs and Scottish fold cats) and rabbits (such as Netherland dwarf and lionhead rabbits), that also suffer from problems related to their exaggerated physical appearance.
In recent years, these breeds, particularly the brachycephalic dog breeds, have become increasingly popular pets, in part because people find their appearance cute and adorable. In addition to their facial features, these breeds are often also small and have sweet temperaments; this has made them even more desirable as they are perceived to fit in with modern and busy lifestyles.
These breeds have become increasingly popular amongst New Zealanders; in 2015 and 2016, British bulldogs were stated as the fourth most popular breed, with French bulldogs sixth, and pugs not far behind. The popularity of these breeds is showing no signs of reducing. However, despite their popularity, not many owners realise the dark hidden truth behind these breeds. Selective breeding practices over the last decade have favoured a flatter face – seen by many as a desirable feature. However, as a result of the reduced length of their snouts and faces, these unfortunate animals can be plagued with severe health problems.
Obstructive airway syndrome
What problems do the exaggerated brachycephalic features cause? While some owners of brachycephalic breeds may not encounter overt health issues with their animals, the reality is that a high proportion of brachycephalic animals have compromised welfare, special needs, and health problems. In some cases, these health problems can be severely debilitating, and even life-threatening.
Brachycephalic breeds suffer from a condition called brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS), which is a combination of upper airway abnormalities seen in animals that have been selectively bred to have short noses and high domed foreheads. The abnormalities seen in BOAS include:
- Stenotic nares – these are narrow or small nostrils that restrict the amount of air that can flow into the respiratory system.
- An elongated soft palate (the soft part of the roof of the mouth) – the soft palate is too long for the length of the mouth and partially blocks the entrance to the trachea at the back of the throat, again restricting the amount of air that can flow into the respiratory system.
- A hypoplastic trachea (or windpipe) – this is an undeveloped trachea that has a smaller diameter than normal, again restricting the amount of air that can flow into the respiratory system.
- Everted laryngeal saccules – these are small sacs or pouches located just inside the larynx (or voice box). In BOAS, these saccules can obstruct airflow into the respiratory system by everting (turning outwards) or being sucked into the airway by pressure associated with increased respiratory effort. The increased respiratory effort results from the animal trying to move air past their stenotic nares and/or elongated soft palate.
An individual animal with BOAS may have one or a combination of these abnormalities. Just imagine trying to breathe through a straw – this is similar to what some of these brachycephalic animals experience on a daily basis. Essentially, the selective breeding to exaggerate the flat-faced physical appearance of these animals has caused their respiratory system to become more and more narrowed and restricted. As a result, the respiratory system just does not work as well as it used to, or as well as it needs to.
Animal lovers would be shocked to see the difference in how these breeds look in comparison to a few decades ago; the side-by-side comparisons accentuate just how much these breeds have changed due to human intervention.
Health and Welfare
Animals that have BOAS suffer from a number of health and welfare problems. Their compromised airways mean it is hard for them to get enough oxygen into their lungs and to their organs. This may cause some dogs to faint or collapse due to a lack of oxygen, especially when they exercise or get excited or hot. It is also common for these animals to have chronic sleep deprivation, and they may be forced to sleep sitting or standing up because of their breathing problems. Owners of these dogs may comment on their notably loud snoring. While some people may think this is an endearing trait, unfortunately this is just another sign of the animal’s inability to breathe properly.
These dogs can also easily overheat and suffer heat stroke, which in serious cases is fatal. In hot weather, even a short walk can be risky for a brachycephalic breed. Both their breathing difficulty and their often excessive skin folds contribute to them overheating.
In addition to BOAS, many brachycephalic dogs also suffer from other conformation-related health problems that negatively impact their welfare. The bulging eyes and wrinkly facial skin of these dogs are the result of selective breeding for the extreme facial features that people often find so cute. These features cause abnormal exposure of the animal’s eyeball and often result in eye trauma, ulceration of the cornea, and entropion (an abnormality where the eyelids fold inwards and scratch the eyeball, also causing ulceration of the cornea). The excessive skin folds can put the dogs at higher risk of skin issues.
It is quite common for brachycephalic breeds to require corrective surgery to try to improve their quality of life, such as removal of excess skin at the back of the throat or around the eyes. Sadly, many owners are not prepared for this reality; a cute brachycephalic puppy may cost $4000 to begin with and in the first two years of their life could need in excess of $10,000 of surgery. This is not only costly, but puts the animal through significant stress. In addition, the success of these procedures varies, with some animals needing repeated surgeries, and some continuing to suffer throughout their whole lives, even after surgery.
A worldwide call for change
It is not just New Zealand speaking out over concerns for brachycephalic animals. Many countries and organisations are recognising the welfare concerns affecting these animals, and some have implemented their own campaigns to educate people about the matter.
Beginning in July 2018, the NZVA will restrict the use of images of brachycephalic breeds in their VetScript magazine; this is similar to what has already been actioned in the UK. The British Veterinary Association’s #breedtobreathe campaign includes the release of a position statement which highlights ten ways in which practising veterinarians can help improve health and welfare of brachycephalic breeds, and promote responsible ownership. A 2008 BBC documentary titled ‘Pedigree dogs exposed’ also highlighted the issues these popular breeds suffer. Australia RSPCA’s ‘love is blind' campaign is aimed at spreading the message about the animal welfare problems caused by exaggerated physical features such as brachycephalic, short limbs, and excessive skin wrinkling, and how these problems can be prevented.
What can be done?
Veterinarians and welfare groups know that brachycephalic owners love their pets. However, the issues plaguing these animals will only continue to worsen for both the animals and the people who love them if action is not taken to educate people about the health complications that stem from irresponsible breeding practices.
Breeders and members of breed associations can call for urgent changes to the relevant breed standards; these changes should aim to make sure that the exaggerated features that are causing so many health and welfare problems are no longer required as part of the breed standards. Consequently, these exaggerated features will no longer be considered as desirable. Animal show judges can promote positive changes in breeds by rewarding animals that have a physical appearance that is more moderate and functional as a priority over animals with exaggerated brachycephalic features.
Breeders can also actively prevent or reduce brachycephalicrelated problems by not selecting for exaggerated brachycephalic physical features in the animals they are breeding. Instead, they should choose to breed animals that have a more normal and moderate appearance and functional anatomy. It is important that breeders, members of breed associations, and show judges make it clear that animal health and welfare are more important than appearance.
Potential buyers of puppies, kittens and other animals can help by choosing not to buy animals with exaggerated features that compromise their health and welfare. It is a good idea for potential buyers to ask to see the parents of the animal they are thinking of buying; this will give them an idea of the parents’ appearance and whether their offspring are likely to have health problems associated with exaggerated physical features.
It will also help to ask breeders directly if they are trying to breed animals that have a more normal and moderate appearance and functional anatomy to prevent health problems. People who already own a brachycephalic animal should speak to their veterinarian about how to help their animal live a more comfortable life. It may be possible to take steps to help avoid some of the worst consequences of health and welfare issues related to being brachycephalic.
Animals with exaggerated brachycephalic physical features, particularly if these are causing health or welfare problems, should be desexed and not bred. It is important not to perpetuate these health and welfare problems for future generations of animals to suffer.
Regulation of ‘backyard breeding’ practices will prevent these operations from thriving, as they may breed for exaggerated brachycephalic physical features with no regard for the health and welfare of the animals involved, and are subject to none of the guidance of breed associations. Up until Trade Me’s ban, pug or bulldog puppies were being sold for up to $4500 each on the site.
With no current regulations around breeding in New Zealand, some of these breeders do not adhere to good practices and breed to solely make a profit, instead of prioritising the dogs’ health and welfare.
It is important that owners of brachycephalic breeds are informed of some of the issues they and their animals may face. Signs of extreme exaggerated brachycephalic physical features that are causing health issues include noisy or laboured breathing, gagging, choking, problems breathing during physical exertion, and overheating. Be sure to take your dog (or other affected animal) to see the veterinarian so that their breathing can be assessed and the veterinarian can advise you if the animal is likely to need treatment to help them live a more comfortable and healthy life.
Keep a close eye on your animal, especially during exercise or hot weather, and look for changes in their breathing such as excessive panting in dogs (panting in cats is always a concern and should be checked), or an obvious struggle to take in air. Getting to know your animal’s normal breathing patterns can help you be aware if this changes; this can be life-saving, as struggling to breathe or overheating can be life-threatening. If you do notice laboured breathing, take your animal straight away to see the veterinarian – you might just save their life.
How can we help?
With so many veterinary professions and animal welfare groups worldwide now beginning to put a focus on the issues that plague brachycephalic breeds, the hope is these campaigns will help to evoke change for these animals.
Although there is no quick solution to the health and welfare issues associated with brachycephalic breeds, the fact that conversations have begun worldwide is a step in the right direction. In New Zealand, the SPCA is working with other organisations to promote public awareness of the issue; supporting steps by companies like Trade Me, breed associations, breeders, veterinarians, and other groups to address the problem; and working with other international organisations on this issue. Dogs New Zealand has also recently formed a brachycephalic working group with the goal of continuing to raise awareness across the nation.
The next practical steps to making change will be to look at ways to educate both existing and possible future owners of potentially affected breeds about how they can make ethical choices and evaluate the welfare of affected animals. Limiting the use of these breeds for mainstream advertising, and putting a stop to portraying them as ‘trendy and desirable’ will hopefully reduce the high demand that leads to irresponsible breeding practices becoming so lucrative. Another important step will be having and enforcing breeding regulations which put emphasis on the good health and welfare of an animal as a priority over ‘desired’ and ‘fashionable’ physical traits. Everyone involved must work together to help improve the future for brachycephalic animals; they deserve better than to be condemned to a life of health and welfare problems just because of their appearance.