Should Flat Faced dogs be Banned (is there another way)?
Should flat faced dogs be banned? Maybe an alternative is for us all to work together to give these dogs the air they need to live the life they deserve.
Flat faced dogs like Pugs and French Bulldogs are becoming more and more common and unfortunately more dogs are suffering health problems because of this. Is #breedtobreathe realistic and do vets really want to ban Pugs, French Bulldogs and other flat nosed dogs?
I'll discuss why I think a ban of these breeds is a bad idea in a minute. I also know that not all dogs suffer from these problems and other breeds have serious issues too, all which I'll discuss. But first lets jump into the issues.
Breathing problems in flat faced dogs
Flat faced dogs like Pugs, Bulldogs and French Bulldogs are grouped together and known as brachycephalic. Simply meaning short nosed. They are fantastic characters, they are loyal, fun loving and make excellent companions. They generally lighten the mood in the consult room so if anyone accuses me (or most other vets) as being against these flat nosed dog breeds, they couldn't be further from the truth. The problem is that we are seeing these flat faced dogs more and more in our consult rooms across the world and as a result seeing more and more of the problems many of them suffer from.
The problems are many and are very much a man-made, breeding issue. We have selected for shorter and shorter noses but at the same time the amount of soft tissue, that's skin and tissue within the mouth, has remained pretty much the same. This leaves a huge amount of tissue crammed into a tiny head. The nostrils have become really narrow which makes it very hard for them to actually draw air through their nose. As the air goes through their nose, the amount of tissue here is also magnified, again increasing the resistance to air flow.
The next problems that makes breathing hard, whether these dogs breathe through their nose or mouth, is their soft palpate and tongue. The soft palate is the flappy bit of tissue at the back of the throat. When it is longer than normal it flaps around, it narrows the airway and this is what you're hearing when your dog is snuffling, snorting or snoring. You are hearing the effort that these dogs are having to make to force air past the partial obstruction at the back of their throat.
You might think that the noises a lot of our flat faced dogs make are cute but in reality they are an audible indicator that they are not breathing freely.
Even when the air manages to be forced through the small nostrils, narrow nasal passages and past the soft palate obstruction it then has to contend with the trachea (or windpipe). Guess what, this is more narrow than normal too.
The increase in effort needed just to breathe through these narrow airways then makes the larynx (or voice box) become swollen. Guess what this does? Yes, it makes the airway more narrow and breathing harder.
To make matters even worse their is currently a serious obesity epidemic in our pet dog and cat population that I have spoke about many times. Any excess fat is going to increase our flat faced dogs problems by further narrowing their airways. Check out this article if you want to know more about the dangers of being overweight.
Now, not every flat faced dog is going to be affected and not every flat nosed dog who does suffer from some problems will be affected the same way. It is a significant problem though and if you hear one of these brachycephalic dogs snuffling, snorting or snoring then you can be certain there is a problem, no matter how cute you think this sound is. Just because it has become normal for the breed does not mean it's OK.
It's a really common health problem
Just how many dogs are affected? Well, in one study done at the university of Cambridge 93% of pugs were affected to some degree or other. 90% of French Bulldogs and 85% of Bulldogs are also suffering to some degree. That's an awful lot, especially when you combine it with the statistic that up to 58% of flat nosed dogs seen by vets with breathing problems are not recognized as having breathing issues by their owners.
It is so prevalent that we just think of it as normal. Not being able to breathe properly is not normal!
Still not convinced, pinch your nose and try breathing through a straw for any length of time while being active. You won't last long and will soon need to rest. It is for this very reason that many of these flat faced dog breeds are considered quiet or calm. If they get excited or try to run around they very quickly reach a stage where they simple cant get enough oxygen into their lungs. This is a massive issue considering they are such enthusiastic, friendly individuals.
That's not all of course. These breathing problems can make flat nosed dogs more prone to heat stroke. Some breeds can also have problems with deformed spines and many will suffer from skin infections because of their deep skin folds. Their hearts often struggle from the lack of oxygen the breathing problems cause. their teeth can be very crowded and dental disease is common. They are more prone to eye issues because they are much more prominent and vulnerable to injury. Perhaps finally they also struggle to give birth. Their large heads mean that many require elective c-sections.
We are breeding dogs that cant breathe properly and many can't even give birth without surgery.
That's enough of the potential problems. I'll leave a couple of links below that discuss them in more detail.
The problem with pedigree dogs
Now of course, hearing that your dog may be really likely to suffer from these conditions is very upsetting. A frequent reaction is to then point out that there are lots of other breeds that commonly suffer from hereditary conditions so why pick on just these flat nosed breeds?
I would be the first to admit that yes, many breeds do have conditions they are more prone to and suffer from with upsetting regularity. I also believe that these issues are just as important to fix and some of the strategies I'll discuss in a minute would be just as helpful for any breed in trying to rectify problems that us humans have created through selective breeding.
Some examples might be Westies and skin allergies, Labradors and their hips and knees, Daschunds and spinal disease, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and their hearts and skulls...the list is long.
I think there are 4 reasons why our Pugs and French Bulldogs (amongst others) are currently being singled out:
They are rapidly gaining popularity.
Many people are unaware of the issues their new dogs are likely to face.
Airway problems can affect very young dogs.
Surgery is the only thing that may improve things and this is not without significant expense. There is no effective medical treatment.
So what can we do to help these awesome dogs be even more awesome and free from disease? After all that must be the goal of everyone? Surely?
Ban flat faced dogs?
Well, one thing that has gained a lot of press recently is a call to ban the breeds that are affected. Now this is not what the recent #breedtobreathe campaign is all about but there have been some petitions calling on the complete banning of the entirety of these breeds.
Will this work? Absolutely not.
Unscrupulous breeders will always find ways to get around any legislation - creating cross breeds, new breeds, under-the-table sales. But the fact that it wouldn't work doesn't in itself make banning entire breeds the wrong thing to do.
Passing any such legislation will alienate a huge proportion of the dog owning population who have fallen in love with the fantastic character of these dogs. It will put people off seeking help for those dogs already with us and suffering health issues for risk of being judged and made to feel embarrassed. It also wont help the new designer breeds and crosses which come along to take their place with exactly the same characteristics and problems. There always seem to be loopholes with any legislation.
In banning these breeds we will also lose so many of the desirable traits they have and there is another way. So then, what is the alternative to banning flat faced dog breeds?
The way I see it there needs to be a 4-pronged attack and this could definitely reverse the current, worrying health trend and improve the lives of millions of dogs. It could also be used as a template for other breeds with genetic issues that could have far reaching implications in improving the health of the dog population as a whole.
Educate, educate, educate
I've already said that over half of flat faced dog owners of do not consider their individually dog to have any breathing problems even when they are present. This is not surprising and is a very similar figure to owners of overweight pets as you can read about here.
When we become used to something being present we start to accept it as normal. A dog who is making noise while they are breathing, especially when they are not exercising heavily, is not normal. The more this message is spread by vets, dog trainers and all dog enthusiasts, the more dogs can be helped to live the active, easy breathing life they deserve.
The role of obesity needs to be made very clear too. This is something that is readily treatable with a good weight loss program and support. It does not need surgery and either losing weight for the obese or maintaining a healthy weight for those already at that point may be the difference between a dog who can exercise freely and one who can hardly breathe at a trot.
On another note, the more prospective puppy owners who know what to look out for, the higher the demand there will be for individuals who are less likely to suffer from the genetic problems that can seriously impact on quality of life and life expectancy.
This brings us nicely onto my next suggestion...
The vast majority of dogs never go near a show ring, are never judged at anything more serious than a school pet day or summer fete and have nothing to do with organisations like the Kennel Club.
The best breeders though are often Kennel Club registered (but not always) and there are definitely some advantages to choosing a breeder who is registered, especially if you do not know a breeder from personal or professional recommendations.
It is the Kennel club who decide what each breed should look like, known as the breed standard. The simple act of encouraging a nose to be bred back into the breed will highlight the vital importance of this among breeders. It will also generate publicity and any photos of winning dogs will show a dog with a longer nose. If we become more used to seeing such individuals hopefully our definition of "normal" will also change.
It wouldn't hurt to get a few high profile pug lovers to help publicize the changes and help encourage people to look for responsible breeders when getting a puppy. The impact of celebrity endorsement should not be underestimated.
But how do you know if a breeder is responsible...?
Health schemes for all
This is where clear, evidence based health schemes come into play. Excellent work by the BOAS group at the university of Cambridge shows us that it is possible to take a few simple measurements, predict which dogs are more likely to suffer from breathing issues and which individuals are more likely to be free from disease.
Breed from 2 lower risk dogs and the puppies are also likely to be at a lower risk.
It won't take many generations to get noses back on our flat faced dogs and breed them back to health. The population as a whole will be much healthier as a result.
But what about those breeders who choose not to be part of the health scheme? Ideally it wouldn't be optional. If it were, backyard breeders and puppy mills will find that their potential customers are now much better advised and informed and will find that the demand for the puppies they produce will dry up.
Make sure you check out my related article if you don't know why puppy mills are bad or why you should't buy a pet shop puppy.
To further help combat rouge breeders we need stricter controls. The simple licencing of breeders we currently have pretty much simply gives them the right to sell puppies as a business. It does very little to ensure the breeding conditions are really appropriate for raising healthy, well socialized puppies (let alone the welfare of the mums and dads).
Poor puppy breeders will always fly under the radar, exploiting the dogs they breed, the puppies they produce and the people who buy or mistakenly "rescue" them. Making this harder through regular inspections of known puppy breeders combined with tough, meaningful prosecution of those who continue to produce unhealthy puppies of any breed can only be a good thing.
Everyone who has been involved in the debates about banning vs appropriate breeding want the same thing, happy, healthy dogs. To say that all dogs of one breed will have health problems is not accurate but equally just because some people perceive their dog to be completely healthy does not mean there is not a problem. The evidence points to the fact that there clearly are significant issues.
By having an us vs them situation there is a real risk of alienating the owners of the very dogs that need help. The last thing we want is owners of brachycephalics (or any other breed with issues) to stop seeking help for any health issues because of fear of judgment or embarrassment.
Lets all work together - Veterinarians, Kennel Clubs, Breeders and breed enthusiasts. Lets educated and support, not alienate, dog owners and potential owners of breeds affected by these health issues. Lets teach them how they can give these dogs the air they need to live the life they deserve!
What do you think? What is the best way to improve the health of our flat faced dogs, or any other breed for that matter? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments below.