an brachycephalic dog lies down because of shortness of breath

WSAVA Spotlights Short Nosed Breeds Crisis


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Only recently we endured social distancing and lockdowns. These safety measures were designed to keep us safe from a new virus that causes significant respiratory issues, COVID-19. Sadly however, some companion animals don’t have this luxury of protection. Brachycephalic dogs bred for extreme conformity may simply struggle to breathe whether or not they’re sick. The WSAVA Hereditary Disease Committee and others are looking at what we as pet professionals can do to reduce brachycephaly in pets.

It’s a global movement that each of us, whether breeders, vets, trainers, retailers or other pet professionals, can all join.

It’s about companion animal welfare in breeds like Pugs, English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and other flat-faced breeds. These dogs now commonly live only two-thirds as long as many other breeds.

Here’s why:

Brachycephalic breeds soar in popularity

For the longest time, the Labrador Retriever has topped most charts in terms of breed popularity. Recently, however, brachycephalic breeds are taking over. Not only do they pull the heartstrings with their flat faces that mimic those of infants, but they tend to be prized by marketers too.

It’s quite possible that French Bulldogs have appeared in more ads in the last few years than many other breeds. (This is not an official stat; we’re not counting). That’s great, every dog deserves their day. However, while they’re in the limelight let’s also shed some light on their health.

WSAVA resources for vets, breeders and owners

To understand, mitigate and treat the effects of brachycephaly the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) Hereditary Disease Committee recommends the recently published Health and Welfare of Brachycephalic (Flat-faced) Companion Animals. (The book’s by-line is A Complete Guide for Veterinary and Animal Professionals).

Written by a collection of world-leading experts, it explores ethical and historical perspectives around breeding flatter-faced dogs. Several chapters are dedicated to science and medicine. If we want to understand how serious brachycephaly can be we need only look at what some of these chapters cover:

  • Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS)
  • Surgical management
  • Post-operative management
  • Ophthalmology
  • Dermatological problems
  • Dental/oral health
  • Brain disorders
  • Vertebral malformations/spinal disease
  • Obesity 

WSAVA houses several other BOAS resources on its site for pet professionals and owners alike. In addition to a press release on the ‘Canine Welfare Crisis’ of short nose breeds, the organisation is calling for ‘health-focused’ breeding. That makes sense to all of us. Healthy pets make happy pets and a happy society.

the profile of a French Bulldog shows its brachycephaly

What is brachycephaly and where did it start?

Derived from Greek, brachycephaly means ‘short head‘ or skull.

Having a flattened skull reduces the availability of space for respiratory anatomy. Soft tissues, bones and muscles become squashed into a smaller, flatter space in the skull. This can cause obstruction that leads to a higher prevalence of brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome.

As many breeders, vets and other pet pros are well aware, brachycephalic breeds haven’t always been this way. Appearance-wise, and resultingly health-wise, they’ve changed a lot over the years. Over many generations, brachycephalic dogs have been bred for the extreme conformity we see today. We deliberately breed flatter faces and the outcome is showing us this needs to change.

As veterinarian and chair for Healthy Pets New Zealand, Dr Cath Watson says, one of the challenges is when pet owners feel these breeds are ‘meant to be like that.’

“It’s like trying to run with a peg on your nose and only being able to breathe through a straw in your mouth. Unfortunately for a long time vets have also been very complicit in enabling the breeding of these dogs. ”

– Dr Cath Watson

Dr Cath explains that “convincing owners their dog is not ‘normal’ and to consider surgery early is almost impossible. Even then, there is only so much that can be helped by surgery. Some breeds in particular, like English Bulldogs for example, end up having quite a short lifespan as a consequence of chronic health issues like BOAS.  The harm we do by breeding for these specific features is becoming more and more obvious, and yet many people are still choosing to ignore them.”

We don’t have to continue on this path. Instead we can choose to breed for health. Brachycephalic breeds of the future will thank us for realising this needs to happen and taking action.

Breeding for health

Dogs New Zealand has multiple schemes to help breeders achieve this goal. The Kennel Club/University of Cambridge Respiratory Function Grading (RFG) Scheme, Judges Breed Observation Scheme and Breed Litter Registration Limitations (LRLs) are some examples.

  • Judges Breed Observation Scheme. This provides tools that help dog show judges record breed issues. It helps establish the health of pedigree breeds.
  • Breed Litter Registration Limitations. This scheme was developed together with breed clubs. It’s designed to ensure health testing is done when litters are still in the planning stage.
  • Respiratory Function Grading. The RFG Scheme is a science based approach under license from and in collaboration with the UK Kennel Club. Read more about this scheme here and below.

“Dogs NZ is currently working on a roll out of a diagnostic test, respiratory functional grading (RFG) for brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome for veterinarians in NZ. The sire and dam of registered pedigree Pug litters in NZ will have to have this test before litters are registered. We hope it will help all Pugs, French Bulldogs, and Bulldogs.” 

– Rhea Hurley, Dogs NZ Canine Health and Welfare Office

Breeding for less extreme conformity and better breathing can help to alleviate the health concerns for these breeds. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps it takes the whole pet industry to reduce brachycephaly in dogs by raising awareness and implementing best practices.

Read about the PD partnership with Dogs New Zealand. Find out how we're working hand in hand to support the health and welfare of Kiwi pets.
two brachycephalic breeds walk on leads in the park

There are several entirely rational reasons why brachycephalic dogs have become popular. Firstly, they’re lovable and easygoing. These are dogs that, unlike German Shepherds or Border Collies, aren’t going to have the same degree of boundless energy and zoomies. This makes them a wonder for first (second and third) time puppy parents.

Sadly though, it’s not just that these are low-energy dog breeds. Sometimes they simply can’t exercise as much as they might need to because of breathing issues, overheating and the physical stress this causes.

Secondly, the brachycephaly in these breeds produces features that are akin to those of human babies. Large eyes, small noses and flatter faces are all features associated with infants. The human need to protect an infant is part of our evolution; it comes from a good place. However, in designing dog breeds to have these features, we’re not keeping their best health interests in mind.

This biological and evolutionary concept is “kindchenschema” (baby schema). It’s one of the more theoretical concepts explored in the WSAVA recommended book, Health and Welfare of Brachycephalic (Flat-faced) Companion Animals.

Note: While brachycephalic breeds popularity continues in many parts of the world, New Zealand figures seem to be declining. 

Dogs NZ statistics show that in 2015 there were 404 registered Bulldogs compared to 393 in 2022. Similarly in 2015 there were 373 registered French Bulldogs compared to just 242 in 2022. Finally, in 2015 we had 135 registered Pugs and in 2022 only 67.  

Educating puppy parents on brachycephalic dogs

As breeders, dog show judges, vets and more, we can help raise awareness on this topic. Not every person who loves dogs knows what brachycephaly is. We can educate future puppy parents to not want their dog to resemble a baby forever but, instead, to be as healthy and happy as possible.

PD helps educate existing and future puppy parents via our consumer blog. On this particular topic, our article Brachycephalic Breeds: Health Conditions in Flat Faced Dogs outlines common health concerns and other key information.

The below video from WSAVA is a valuable one for us pet professionals to share with prospective puppy parents. Let’s collaborate to ensure the future health of brachycephalic dog breeds:

PD partnerships rewards program

As pet industry professionals we can make an immense difference to animal welfare when we stand together. Join the PD pet care partnerships rewards program. Help educate your customers about pet health insurance (read how pet insurance can help vets) and earn rewards for your organisation.

Contact PD to start your partnership journey with us today.

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