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Dogs should look like dogs
  1. Suzanne Jarvis

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How many of you have colleagues – vets or nurses – who own or even breed brachycephalic dogs?

This was a question asked by Brenda Bonnett, CEO of International Partnership for Dogs, to an audience at the joint World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) and the Federation of European Companion Animal Veterinary Associations (FECAVA) congress last week. She was speaking in a panel discussion on the vet’s role in tackling the problem of brachycephalic dogs.

I was surprised – the raised hands indicated almost everyone in the room.

Some might defend their position if the dog in question was from a rescue centre but, as Bonnett said, vets and veterinary nurses shouldn’t be breeding these animals. The veterinary community has to get its own house in order before it can hope to influence others.

There is no doubt that brachycephaly is a condition that causes many health problems. For dogs, being a bulldog, French bulldog or pug means they will die earlier than the average. Data collected by Agria Pet Insurance show the average lifespan for these three breeds is 8.6 years, against an average across the board of 12 years.

The same dataset shows these breeds have 10 times the risk of developing corneal ulcers when compared to all breeds, and for those under six years of age, a 20 times risk of breathing problems.

Insurance companies are well versed in assessing risk, and in recent years some insurers in, for example, the Scandinavian countries now exclude certain conditions for cover, such as respiratory or skin issues, in brachycephalic breeds because they consider the risk too high.

BVA members have cited health problems in brachycephalic breeds as one of their top welfare concerns. It was obvious from the sessions at the WSAVA/FECAVA congress on healthy breeding that veterinary associations in Europe also have this issue on their radar.

But what can be done to improve the situation?

There are two ways to go about doing this. One is to encourage breeding practices that improve the health of these dogs. This can be done by health screening dogs before breeding and showing and only allowing those that are healthier to go forward, selecting dogs for breeding with less exaggerated conformation, or outcrossing with other breeds to add genetic and phenotypic diversity.

Another suggestion is to neuter any animal that needs surgery for brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) or repeated caesareans so that it cannot be bred from.

The breed standards might seem a good place to start. Although kennel clubs around the world have made some progress, there is arguably more that can be done to improve these standards.

For example, the UK Kennel Club has the following under ‘General appearance’ in its breed standard for pugs: ‘Decidedly square and cobby, it is “multum in parvo” shown in compactness of form, well knit proportions and hardness of muscle, but never to appear low on legs, nor lean and leggy.’

Considering BOAS is made worse by being overweight, perhaps the pug could do with being a bit leaner than the breed standard suggests?

However, the vast majority of dogs are not registered with kennel clubs. Percentages vary between breeds and countries, with figures presented at WSAVA/FECAVA congress ranging from around three to eight per cent of dogs being registered. So any change to the breed standard will not make any difference to these unregistered dogs.

The second way is to encourage people not to select these breeds in the first place. After all, breeders, whether registering with kennel clubs or not, are only responding to want consumers want.

And consumers want the baby-faced look of these breeds, and there is evidence to suggest that some people even select these breeds because they need extra care and ‘mothering’.

Also there is the media and celebrity influence on consumers. So many adverts and merchandise feature these breeds, particularly pugs and French bulldogs. And search on Google for ‘celebrities with pugs/frenchies/bulldogs’ and a gallery of popular faces including George Clooney, Hugh Jackman, Paris Hilton, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Gerard Butler, Jessica Alba, Pink and Valentino pop up.

But what can the veterinary profession do about this?

Since last year the BVA has been re-educating companies that have been using these breeds in advertising, and has had success in changing views and decisions. There is also the Campaign for the Responsible Use of Flat-Faced Animals (CRUFFA), which appeals to companies and organisations to stop using brachycephalic breeds in their advertising and media.

There are things vets can do on an individual or practice level. Since Veterinary Record announced a ban on using pugs, French bulldogs and bulldogs in advertising in our journals in March this year (VR, March 25, 2017, vol 180, p 288) we’ve had a lot of positive feedback. It prompted some vets to look at the collateral in their waiting rooms and the images they were using on social media and remove those featuring these breeds.

Most change will happen through influencing consumers on their choice. Vets should be at the forefront of making sure these health problems are not normalised and considered as ‘just what the breed is like’ or as expressions of a dog’s personality.

Wouldn’t it be great to see veterinary associations from across the world working together with sensible celebrities to counter the popularity of these breeds?

Perhaps, though, more extreme action is required. Some think banning the breeding of these animals is the way forward. At the congress panel discussion, vet Emma Milne, called for veterinary groups to say they did not support people having these breeds as pets. In another session on tackling problems caused by extreme confirmation, Kristin Wear Prestrud, from the Norwegian Kennel Club, suggested vets should talk to clients about euthanasing those pets severely affected by their confirmation.

There is the argument that action on any extreme breed is a bit like tackling the Hydra in Greek myth, ‘chop off the head’ of these brachycephalic breeds and we will just see two more problem breeds become fashionable and spring up in their place.

This may well be true, so perhaps the real challenge is how to keep sustained health across all pet breeds. Dogs should look like dogs, cats like cats and any deformity and disability that has been bred in should be acknowledged as such.

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