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Flat-faced dogs: Seven #breedtobreathe campaign myths debunked

A pug
Appeal: flat-faced dogs are becoming ever more popular

I have been highlighting the health issues of flat-faced (“brachycephalic”) animals for several years now, and in that time, the topic has gradually moved into the mainstream.

Last week, the British Veterinary Association issued a strong policy position on the health and welfare of brachycephalic dogs, with an accompanying self-explanatory hashtag: #breedtobreathe.

Many people find these dogs adorable to look at, but the breeds have health problems that can’t be ignored, and it’s refreshing that the veterinary profession is trying to tackle these seriously.

British vets support the breeding of healthy dogs instead of animals that struggle to breathe

The BVA statement includes a concise summary of the main problem: the combination of a rapid rise in the popularity of flat-faced dogs with serious underlying health issues in the breeds. This has lead to a rapid rise in the number of visits by affected animals to vets across the country.

Popular: a line-up of pug-pups Credit: Alamy

The most serious health issue is linked to the narrowed and twisted upper airways of affected dogs, with breathing difficulties known as Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). In the worst cases, dogs have suffocated to death when overheated during exercise on hot days. Other animals require permanent tracheostomies to bypass their distorted airways so that they can breathe easily.

And many dogs need surgery to widen their breathing passages so that they can breathe comfortably. These animals suffer significantly; this is what has motivated the BVA to take action with the #breedtobreathe hashtag.

The BVA website doesn’t get into the statistics, but the Pug Breed Council Website keeps an updated record of some facts and figures: 54.5 per cent of Pugs tested were affected by Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). Studies on Pugs, French Bulldogs and Bulldogs are summarised in the graphic below: the comparison with the non-brachycephalic control dogs is telling.

Breathing difficulties in brachycephalic dogs Credit: Cassie Smith

Opponents of the campaign for healthier dogs misunderstand the motives of those involved

The high incidence of breathing difficulties is the main reason why campaigners have been pushing for breeding of healthier flat-faced dogs. Understandably, many of those who breed and show flat-faced dogs do not welcome this type of focus. They feel unfairly set-upon.

This has led to a polarisation of viewpoints, with closed Facebook  groups acting as bubbles which magnify one-sided viewpoints. These groups are often initiated by well meaning supporters of each side, but their followers sometimes head off on emotionally charged, eye-wavering, abusive rants.

As a bystander witnessing these exchanges, I am astonished to see the foul language and wild ad hominem attacks. It’s surreal to read some of the outlandish comments, then to click through to that individual’s Facebook profile: how can such an apparently normal adult stand over this type of over-the-top ranting?

The polarisation of the debate has created myths on both sides

As part of the online discussion, myths have emerged about the actions and intentions of those campaigning to breed healthier pedigree dogs, as well as about those defending the breeds they love.

It’s worth outlining - and debunking - the most prevalent myths on both sides of the debate.

Endearing: campaigners have dogs' best interests at heart Credit: Alamy

Myth 1: Campaigners hate flat-faced dogs

To the contrary, the main reason for pushing for the breeding of healthier flat-faced dogs is a deep concern for animal welfare, and profound unease at witnessing dogs needing surgery to allow them to breathe like a normal dog. Rather than disliking flat-faced dogs, most campaigners like them so much that they want to help them.

If they disliked them, or even if they felt neutral about them, they would ignore the current situation completely, allowing the continued breeding of a high proportion of dogs with health issues.

There are many far more enjoyable activities than arguing about the health of animals that you don’t care about.

Myth 2: Some flat-faced dogs are perfectly healthy, so 'no problem'

Everyone agrees that there are many healthy flat-faced dogs; the problem is that around 50 per cent are unhealthy, and this is an unacceptably high number. Breed aficionados don’t like this fact, using the old quote of “lies, damned lies and statistics” to try to avoid the argument. But the breeds’ own websites show the facts, and it’s difficult for anyone to disagree with them.

It’s easy for a dog breeder to choose healthy individuals on a television show, but this doesn’t prove anything. In view of the statistics, it’s disingenuous to try to use the existence of healthy individuals to try to win an argument on overall breed health.

Myth 3: The campaign about flat-faced dogs is a PETA conspiracy

It’s well known that PETA - People for Ethical Treatment of Animals - has an underlying viewpoint that pet keeping is wrong. The PETA website explicitly states that “it would be better if the institution of pet keeping - ie, breeding animals to be kept and regarded as pets - never existed.” 

However, there is absolutely no connection whatsoever between PETA and those campaigning for healthier pedigree dogs. Accusations of this type suggest desperation rather than hinting at a hidden truth.

The French bulldog is one of the breeds raising concerns Credit: Alamy

Myth 4: The health of flat-faced dogs can be improved without changing their physical shape

Many of the health issues of flat-faced dogs are caused directly by their physical shape. It is obvious that if shortened, narrowed airways are lengthened and widened, air will flow more easily through them; indeed, that’s the aim of surgery to help badly affected individual dogs.

The health of these breeds cannot improve unless their physical shape is altered, and that means that the template for these breeds ("the breed standard") must change.

Many breeders disagree with this concept, perhaps believing that the healthy specimens of the breed are evidence that the shape doesn’t really matter. It’s important to go back to the data: when 90 per cent of a breed have no breathing issues, then perhaps the shape may be acceptable, but until then, the template surely deserves to be reviewed.

Myth 5: Health problems of flat-faced dogs are only an issue in puppy farmed or smuggled dogs

While it is true that choosing healthy parents is the best way to acquire a healthy puppy, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a high-profile, registered, well-recognised breeder will automatically provide you with a problem-free puppy.

There's a high proportion of flat-faced dogs with health issues across the whole spectrum of sources, both from the show world and from outside the show world.

Myth 6: Pedigree dog breeders don’t care about the health of their breeds

Those campaigning to improve the health of flat-faced breeds often find it difficult to understand the perspective of dog breeders, assuming that because they do not agree with certain points, they are therefore against all change.

This is far from the truth: there are often many roads to the same destination.

The key to progress with pedigree dog health is to find ways for people to work together rather than focusing on differences and personalities (amplified by social media sharing and shouting).

British bulldog: feelings can run high on online forums Credit: Ian Kington/Getty

Myth 7: Proponents of flat-faced breeds are on one team, and campaigners for flat-faced breed health are on the other team

Social-media-driven bun-fights can force people into opposite camps, but the truth is that all of those involved are animal lovers who are doing the best that they can do for the animals that they care about.

It can be difficult for those involved to understand this. People don’t need to be best buddies, but mutual respect creates far more progress than outright contempt.

The Kennel Club’s social media etiquette advice sums up the ideal approach: if the content of your message would not be acceptable for face-to-face conversation, over the phone or in any other medium, then it is not acceptable for a social networking site.

Taking off: selected breed registration statistics from the Kennel Club

What else can be done to improve the health of flat-faced dogs?

Those in authority have worked hard to put differences to one side.  The BVA has joined with organisations such as the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club,  leading UK dog welfare organisations and others to work as the Brachycephalic Working Group (BWG), which has already produced a framework for a partnership approach to improving brachycephalic dog health and welfare.

As an example of genuine practical progress, the BVA statement includes a ten point action plan highlighting actions that veterinary practices can take to improve the health and welfare of brachycephalic dogs and promote responsible pet ownership amongst the dog-buying public: these range from pre-purchase consultations with prospective dog owners to explain potential health issues, to supporting local breed clubs and representatives to develop and implement plans to improve the health of dogs with flat-faced conformation.

If you are looking for a healthy puppy, make sure that the breeder actively participates in available health schemes (eg, BVA/KC Health Schemes), including those for flat-faced breeds that currently exist among Bulldog, French bulldog and Pug breed clubs. And ideally, the parents should have successfully passed exercise tolerance tests (ETT) and functional grading.

This may all seem a tad dry and over-serious to those outside the world of dogs, but the the animals involved, it may be life-changing.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Feel how easy it is to do that. Wouldn’t it be great if all dogs could breathe like that, all of the time?