The cost of cuteness

Brachycephalic dog breeds are defined by their flat face and squashed muzzle, with the word ‘brachycephalic’ simply meaning ‘short head’. Dogs that fall into the category, such as the English Bulldog and Pug, are increasing in popularity due to their ‘cute’ appearance. But behind those large puppy dog eyes and compact bodies lie serious health concerns.

Historically, dogs have been bred to perform certain functions such as herding or guarding. Fast-forward to today and you’ll find breeding has become more focused on aesthetics.

Dr Sean Wensley, Senior Vice President of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), says it’s up to veterinarians as animal welfare ambassadors to educate the public and breeders on what a healthy body shape looks like.

“While it will potentially lead to some challenging conversations, there are problems affecting brachycephalic breeds and we should strive to minimise the risks of these problems,” Sean explains.

These issues include eye problems (due to distortions in the skull), obesity, heat stroke and breathing difficulties (due to their compact bodies, short muzzle and narrow nostrils), and dental discomfort (due to normal-sized teeth being crammed into a miniature jaw).

“We could talk about the need for these breeds to maintain a healthy weight and jointly advocate good diet and exercise,” Sean says. “We could also jointly raise awareness of the abnormality of typical breathing sounds like grunting and snoring and highlight what can be done for those animals, even if it means surgical correction in some cases.”

Registered bodies like the Australian National Kennel Council have a key part to play in drafting breed standards that promote good health and aren’t just concerned with appearance and shape.

“[Representatives from these governing bodies] can then ensure [dog show] judges are trained to reward those healthy shapes in the show ring, so they become desirable,” Sean says.

The popularity game

Recently, brachycephalic breeds have experienced a rapid increase in popularity. This is partly due to celebrities endorsing them as pets, and marketers pushing their ‘cute’, almost infant-like, appearance. With this in mind, it’s crucial that veterinarians work to raise awareness of the health issues that can affect these breeds.

The BVA has taken the step of actively writing to advertisers to highlight that the ‘cute’ dogs they’re using are actually suffering and have a very poor quality of life.

Key signs veterinarians should regularly discuss with owners include snoring, grunting, panting and generally struggling to breath – symptoms that a staggering 60 per cent of dog owners don’t consider to be a problem according to Sean’s research.

“These issues can affect dogs from a young age too, so they can spend the majority of their lives suffering from a range of health difficulties such as breathing, skin or eye problems,” explains Sean.

“We need to be very keen and strong as a profession in making sure prospective owners know what those problems can typically be. Anyone who might be considering getting one of these breeds needs to know that the pet is going to suffer throughout its life and have regular health problems. That’s not a very enjoyable experience of pet ownership and it’s also costly. So it’s up to us to help owners understand exactly what some of those problems are and how they can be avoided.”

Hear from Dr Sean Wensley and many more at the AVA Conference in Melbourne from 4 – 9 June 2017.