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A Call to Action: The Daily Struggles of Flat-Faced Dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • A report recently published by a team of veterinarians in Australia makes the case that vets have a professional and moral obligation to do more to alleviate the suffering of flat-faced dogs
  • The co-authors of the report describe in painful detail the daily struggle of so many of these poor dogs to simply breathe and maintain a normal body temperature
  • The co-authors conclude that unless veterinarians and breed organizations speak up, the breeding and suffering of extreme brachycephalic breeds will continue

Since the Mercola Healthy Pets site was launched over a decade ago, I’ve been writing about the epidemic of poorly bred dogs and the significant health challenges faced by flat-faced (brachycephalic) dogs. I’ve picked up the paced in recent years as the breeding of these animals has become more extreme in terms of exaggerated features, and their popularity and long list of health problems has continued to grow.

Veterinarians here in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia and elsewhere are seeing ever increasing numbers of these dogs with more — and more severe — health problems as a direct result of selective breeding for looks instead of health.

As a veterinarian and passionate advocate for all animals, it’s inconceivable to me that so many breeders, breed and kennel clubs, and dog owners either don’t understand or simply don’t care that so many of these dogs spend their entire lives struggling just to breathe, never mind enduring all the other disorders and diseases they frequently develop.

Veterinarians Have a ‘Professional and Moral Obligation’ to Take Action

Recently, someone brought to my attention a paper written by a team of veterinarians at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney in Australia. The authors of the study have caseloads of veterinary patients that include brachycephalic dogs, and the following is their stated reason for the paper, published in the journal Animals in early 2019:

“Brachycephalic dog breeds are increasing in popularity, despite them suffering from well-documented conformation-related health problems. This has implications for the veterinary caseloads of the future.

Whether the recent selection of dogs with progressively shorter and wider skulls has reached physiological limits is controversial. The health problems and short life expectancies of dogs with extremely short skulls suggests that we may have even exceeded these limits.

Veterinarians have a professional and moral obligation to prevent and minimise the negative health and welfare impacts of extreme morphology and inherited disorders, and they must address brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) not only at the level of the patient, but also as a systemic welfare problem.”1

Two of the co-authors of the paper, Paul McGreevy, professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science, University of Sydney, and veterinarian Anne Fawcett, a lecturer at the University of Sydney, also co-authored an article for online publication The Conversation.

In the article, they discuss in heart wrenching detail the daily struggle many flat-faced dogs — especially those with extreme brachycephaly — endure. The most significant of these is brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS), which occurs “because the nose, tongue, soft palate and teeth are crammed into a relatively small space, reducing the size of the airway.”2

Short-Skulled Dogs ‘Struggle to Breathe’ and ‘Can’t Stand the Heat’

According to McGreevy and Fawcett, dogs with BOAS have:

“… increased respiratory noise, effort and difficulty in breathing, an intolerance to exercise, gagging, blue gums (in the mouth), overheating and fainting. Brachycephalic dogs probably experience the unpleasantness of air hunger (lack of oxygen and surplus of carbon dioxide) and, compared with healthy non-brachycephalic dogs, show marked increases in respiratory rate as temperatures rise.”

I cannot imagine why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to deliberately create an animal who will, for his or her entire life, suffer from air hunger — the frightening sensation of not being able to breathe in sufficient air.

The hotter the environment (indoors or outside), the harder brachys must work to cool their bodies by panting.

“As a result,” McGreevy and Fawcett write, “the tissues of the upper airway swell, further reducing airflow and eventually causing airway obstruction, which causes them to get hotter. It’s a life-threatening vicious cycle.”

When you see a Pug or a Frenchie or a Bulldog panting heavily, I hope you’ll keep this in mind. We all need to be much more aware of the effort these dogs exert every minute of every day just pulling air into their lungs and keeping their body temps in the normal range. And as if all that wasn’t enough:

“Affected dogs also change the way they sleep to avoid airway obstruction, sometimes by adopting a sitting position,” write McGreevy and Fawcett. “They also raise their chins or sleep with a toy between their teeth to keep their airways open. Indeed, 10% can sleep only with an open mouth.”

Other health problems associated with extremely short skulls include “excess carbon dioxide concentrations (that shift the acid-base balance of the blood), neurological deficits, skin disease, eye disease and certain behavioural disorders,” as well as brain disorders, back problems, difficulties giving birth, problems swallowing, vomiting and regurgitation.

In addition, brachys have a higher risk of complications from anesthesia than other breeds, yet also a higher need for surgery to treat their many problems.

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A Call to Action for All Veterinarians

McGreevy, Fawcett, and the other co-authors of the Animals paper believe veterinarians need to take a more active role in discouraging the breeding of dogs with conditions like brachycephaly that seriously compromise their health, longevity, and quality of life. From the McGreevy/Fawcett article:

“The brachycephalic dog patient may place veterinarians in ethically challenging situations when they are approached to help in treatment and breeding of affected animals.

In discussing breed-associated disorders, veterinarians may appear to be critical of the very features that clients find most endearing about their companion animals and some have preferred to speak up only anonymously. Or veterinarians may have a conflict of interest if they draw an income from treating the typical disorders.

But unless veterinarians and breed organisations speak up, the demand for extreme brachycephalic breeds will continue. The enormity of the welfare problem is increasing with the increased demand for affected dogs.”

I’m in 100% agreement and hope all my colleagues in the veterinary community are as well. As one of the contributors in the video above states: “Bring the breed standards back to healthy standards.” It’s a simple and perfect way to turn this unconscionable situation around and begin selectively breeding animals for good health, first and foremost.

Thankfully there are emerging joint initiatives around the world, like the Love is Blind campaign in Australia, to bring awareness to the animal welfare problems caused by humans breeding unwell dogs.

In my opinion, more veterinarians need to be referring their clients in search of puppies to educational websites such as PupQuest that help prospective dog owners understand these issues before they make an impulse purchase.

Even more promising are worldwide joint initiatives such as the International Partnership for Dogs that facilitates communication and collates resources, information and results for the harmonization of genetic testing between testing facilities, breed clubs, breeders, veterinarians and concerned pet parents. Change can happen, but it will take the concerted effort of all of these groups for the health of our purebred dogs to improve.