Above, you’ll see French bulldog Boss, who needed help from Blue Cross for skin problems. He is pictured on his fourth visit to our vets when he was only nine months old. A horrified veterinary profession has caused Frenchies and Pugs to make the headlines. As these breeds soar in popularity, vets have become increasingly concerned about their welfare, and the British Veterinary Association has voiced its concerns about suffering in these breeds. Flat-faced cats, such as Persians, and even Lionhead rabbits, are en vogue now, too.
These breeds tend to appeal to pet buyers because they look similar to human babies with their big ‘puppy dog’ eyes and they can make fun companions, so it’s no surprise that people want to add them to their families – but they do tend to suffer from more particular health problems than those breeds with longer snouts.
What does ‘brachycephalic’ mean?
So, what is a brachycephalic animal? The dictionary describes this as ‘having a relatively broad, short skull (typically with the breadth at least 80 per cent of the length)’. Pet animal breeds have been purposely selected to look a certain way – it’s what makes them what they are – but selecting for looks alone can lead to health problems.
When animals are selectively bred to look a particular way on the outside, their appearance affects all parts of their body, even including the shape of their bones, organs and soft tissue. The shape of the skull of a French bulldog is very different to that of a Labrador.
What health problems do flat-faced dogs suffer from?
The shorter muzzle bone means there is less space for the soft tissues of the face, which is why these breeds often have skin folds and wrinkles. Though you can’t see unless you take a look inside, the soft tissue around the airway also has folds which hang loosely, flapping in the “breeze” of normal breathing. They can easily obstruct or even block the airway, especially on a hot day when they become congested, causing breathing problems. Brachycephalic dogs still have the same number of teeth as other breeds, but they have less space for them in their mouths, so the teeth are crammed together rather than forming a nice straight line.
The snorting, snoring and grunting noises that these breeds often make are thought by many to be just a normal part of these dogs, but they aren’t a normal sound for the dog species; they are signs that these dogs can’t breathe easily. In normal dogs and people, breathing is effortless. We don’t notice it. Imagine if every time you took a breath you were conscious of the effort involved? Without selectively breeding for a healthier skull conformation, these inherited problems cannot be prevented.
Dental disease, gastrointestinal problems, skin infections and eye problems are also common. Owners often don’t realise that brachycephalic dog breeds are more likely to succumb to heatstroke due to their reduced ability to lose heat by panting. It’s even worse if they become overweight.
Studies have suggested that 86 percent of English bulldog puppies, and over 80 percent of French bulldog puppies, are delivered by C-section in the UK; an expensive major operation which, because of the breathing difficulties in these breeds, is very high risk, both for mum and pups.
Are all French bulldogs and pugs unhealthy?
It is true that less exaggerated examples of flat-faced dogs breeds (historically when most dogs were working dogs, these brachycephalics had much longer muzzles) suffer less than those with more extreme features, and not all brachycephalic dogs will need veterinary intervention during their lifetime.
The problem for these breeds is that too many of them do need complex, high-risk – and every anaesthetic for these breeds is considered higher risk – and expensive surgery simply to be able to breathe normally and enjoy a happy life.
What should I think about before getting a flat-faced dog?
French bulldogs, English bulldogs, pugs and other flat-faced breeds are high maintenance to care for if you do have one with health problems (which is, unfortunately, a strong possibility). Depending on the condition they may suffer from, owners may have to administer eye drops or ear medication, wash skin folds several times a week, and bathe their pet frequently. Sadly this can be stressful for both owner and dog – skin and ear infections can be very sensitive and sore, so few dogs enjoy the treatment. Vets may find that quite a few pugs, English bulldogs and Frenchies learn to snap as soon as their ears are touched.
As with getting any dog, you’ll also need to think about the impact on your lifestyle. With flat-faced dogs being prone to problems in hot weather, consider what you’ll do in the summer months to keep your dog free from boredom while not being able to walk them far in the heat.
Can you afford pet insurance? If the answer is no, do you have lots of savings? Surgery to help these breeds breathe normally is quite likely and these operations are not cheap, starting at around £1,000 and rising. If you cannot afford the costs of an operation to help your pet breathe normally, you could face the very sad prospect of having them put to sleep if their quality of life is poor. They are also very prone to eye problems as the skin folds tend to rub the eye – these are extremely painful and costly to treat.
As these breeds grow in popularity, our Blue Cross animal hospital teams are treating more cases for a wide variety of problems caused by breeding for a characteristic flat-face. Sadly, their popularity is also now fuelling a cruel and illegal trade.
We’d advise anyone wanting to help one of these dogs to get one from a reputable rescue organisation. Even so, you will often find that the staff will warn that many will require veterinary treatment at some point in their lives.
Read more about brachycephalic breeds and potential health problems on Blue Cross’s website
Blue Cross is proud to support Vets Against Brachycephalism.