The Problem with Pugs (and other Brachycephalic Dog Breeds)

I’m going to touch on a subject which I believe is very important and currently, there are several media campaigns raising awareness on it.  This campaign is related to Brachycephalic (flat-nosed/ flat-faced) breeds of animals.  My intention of this blog is not to cause offense to anyone, nor state all brachycephalic animals have poor health/ welfare but to raise awareness of the general issues facing these breeds.  I want to state that I personally do not believe the breeding of brachycephalic breeds should be banned.  Instead, I feel breeding associations such as the Kennel Club (KC) and American Kennel Club should carefully reconsider their breed guidelines to reduce the health problems facing these breeds.  Failing a change in breed standards, the development of health programs for issues facing brachycephalic breeds (similar to hip scoring done in Labradors and German Shepherd Dogs) should be considered.

 

What is a Brachycephalic Breed?

Brachycephaly describes animals that have flat-faces with a very short nose which may be almost flat against the face.  Brachycephalic animal breeds are where the breed characteristics include brachycephaly as a feature.  People usually associate the term brachycephalic breeds with dogs however, brachycephalic cat and rabbit breeds exist.

Rabbits and Cats can be Brachycephalic too

Rabbit and cat breeds are often overlooked by their canine counterparts when it comes to this issue.  This means the public/ owner awareness of brachycephaly in rabbits and cats is even lower than with dogs.  Brachycephalic cat breeds are as follows;

  • British Shorthair.
  • Exotic Shorthair.
  • Himalayan cat.
  • Persian cat.
  • Scottish Fold.

Whereas brachycephalic rabbit breeds are;

  • Netherland Dwarf
  • Lionhead

both of which are very popular.

Persian cats are brachycephalic too
Brachycephalic Breeds are just Pugs and French Bulldogs, right?

When you mention brachycephalic breeds of dogs, the ones which come to mind are Pugs, French Bulldogs and English Bulldogs.  However, many more breeds are brachycephalic including;

  • American Bulldog.
  • Boston Terrier.
  • Boxer.
  • Bullmastiff.
  • Cane Corso.
  • Dogue de Bordeaux.
  • Mastiff breeds.
  • Japanese Chin.
  • Pekingnese.
  • Rottweiller.
  • Shih Tzu.
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier is considered brachycephalic too.

Some of these breeds are more commonly affected by brachycephaly associated health conditions more than others explaining why many breeds on this list are not highlighted in campaigns.

 

So What Are The Problems with Brachycephalic Breeds?

Brachycephalic breeds have shorter, sometimes almost non-existent muzzles with their nose almost completely flat to the face in severe cases.  Breathing becomes more difficult in brachycephalic dogs for a number of reasons best explained by comparing the x-rays of a Labrador (non-brachycephalic) with a severely brachycephalic English Bulldog.

NB; On x-ray, Air is black, bone is white and soft tissue (eg skin or the throat) is grey.

I am going to work down from the front of the face to the lungs to highlight the issues on this xray (used with the kind permission of Cat The Vet, a UK veterinary surgeon and vet/ animal welfare campaigner and blogger).

Facial/ neck anatomy Comparison xray
Comparison of a Labrador’s head and neck anatomy compared to a Bulldog’s

 

  1. The nose. There is a drastic difference between the length of the muzzle in the Labrador compared to the Bulldog.  The muzzle and internal structures of the nose contained within both these dogs contain the same number of organs and amount of soft tissue but in the Bulldog this is greatly compacted.  One function of the nose is to allow air to pass through when breathing; when there’s too much soft tissue present, less air can pass through easily making breathing more difficult as is the case with the Bulldog.
  2. Between the nose and circular eye socket of the Bulldog, you should be able to detect darker grey areas which aren’t present in the Labrador. These are the skin folds above the Bulldog’s nose where the skin originally designed for a dog with a longer nose is still present but there isn’t enough space for it to lie flat.  Whilst skin folds don’t affect the dog’s breathing, can affect their quality of life.  This skin becomes hot and irritated and the hot, moist, and greasy area is a perfect place for skin infections to start.  As a result, the skin becomes inflamed and painful before an infection develops.  Many brachycephalic dogs resist you touching their face and one reason for this is their irritated skin.
  3. The teeth. Again, this is not an issue with their breathing, but both the Labrador and the bulldog have the same number of teeth.  In the Labrador, these all have plenty of space but in the Bulldog, they become crowded due to the maxilla (“upper jaw”) being smaller.  The maxilla is also much further back than the jaw so the teeth don’t meet as they should.  The teeth not lining up not only causes problems with dogs picking up food but them not lining up with those on the lower row means teeth can contact the lower gum and vice versa leading to lifelong painful sores or holes in the gum which potentially become infected.  Finally, with a Bulldog’s mouth being too small for its teeth these often either turn and overlap or don’t erupt from the gum.  Them not erupting means they stay within the gum causing pain and potentially leading to an infection requiring the tooth to be extracted whilst it’s within the bone (which the gum covers); a complex surgery requiring bone to be removed.
  4. The back of the mouth/ the throat. Here you see the black airway in the Bulldog is very narrow in comparison to the Labrador. Extra tissue lies in the back of the mouth/ throat, partially blocking the airflow and creating the characteristic snoring or snorting noise when the dog breathes which many people feel are cute. Also, some brachycephalics struggle with their soft palate, a fleshy tissue in the throat, being too long and also blocking the airflow.  These structures reduce the amount of air getting through and cause turbulence in that airflow resulting in the air all flowing in different directions so less air enters the trachea (windpipe).
  5. Finally, you will notice the black trachea running from the throat to the lungs is much narrower in the Bulldog. This means once the Bulldog has used a lot of energy and adapted it’s breathing to force air past all the obstacles before the trachea, there is even more obstruction to airflow.  This means brachycephalic dogs have even more issues getting air to their lungs than if their problems only affected their noses.

Dogs need plenty of oxygen from their lungs to be both physically and mentally active.  If their airflow is restricted they will become easily stressed when active as they will be unable to breathe in enough air to feel comfortable.  In worse case scenarios they can faint or even have seizures (fit) when exercising because the oxygen in their blood is too low to adequately supply their organs including their brain and heart.  In fact, many brachycephalic dogs are very quiet purely because them doing any exercise can be both very difficult and uncomfortable.  Imagine you’re breathing through a straw whilst out on a run; being able to keep on running will quickly make you tired, uncomfortable and you may even begin to feel dizzy; this is how a brachycephalic dog with breathing problems feels.

This Bulldog’s nostrils are so closed they will struggle to breathe at all
Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS)

Together, the breathing problems mentioned above alongside a narrowing of the nostrils create BOAS.  This syndrome is diagnosed in brachycephalic breeds whose features cause the breathing difficulties difficult and affects up to 85% of Pugs and 45% of French Bulldogs.  This syndrome severely affects many dogs lives, reducing their welfare as they are unable to act like dogs and struggle to go for walks or even playing. There isn’t a magic pill that helps BOAS, the only effective treatment is surgery. This surgery, or collection of surgical procedures, could cost thousands of pounds and, more importantly, in the short-term, may be painful and dangerous for your dogs to go through.  However, in the long-run, these procedures will massively improve your dog’s energy levels, health, and quality of life.  In fact, surgery changes their lives so much that one of the most common complaints is how their dog has become bouncy and difficult to handle.  The surgery itself has not changed the dog behaviour, or what it wants to do just now they can act in a way in their health was preventing them from doing.  Thus, if your dog is more bouncy and boisterous after BOAS surgery it is a sign they really needed surgery and that it’s been effective.

 

Some brachycephalic dogs do not need surgery at all and live normal healthy lives with few problems.  However, for those that need surgery some may only need one procedure whereas others may need several done together as one big operation.  The simplest procedure, and therefore the most common, is to widen the nostrils.  This allows more air into the nose thus, to some degree, increasing the amount of air getting to the lungs but it doesn’t help with any narrowing or obstructions past the nostrils which is often the bigger problem.  To increase the success rate, along with widening the nostrils, a dog may have its soft palate shortened, and tissue near the tonsils removed.  These procedures together greatly increase the amount of air a dog can breathe in, often completely resolving any breathing issues.

Do Brachycephalic Breeds have other Problems?

Brachycephalic breeds have a large number of health problems and I am only touching on a few here.

Brachycephalic dogs, especially the bull breeds, have very wide heads and relatively narrow pelvises.  This doesn’t affect them unless they are pregnant females.  The vast majority of Pugs and Bulldogs cannot give birth naturally as the bitch’s pelvis isn’t wide enough for the puppy’s head to pass through. Their dogs often need caesareans with each pregnancy with over 80% of Bulldogs, Boston Terriers and French Bulldogs requiring caesarians to give birth.  If they don’t get a caesarean on time, both the mum and pups can die.  The risks of a caesarean are;

  1. The anaesthetic risk (higher due to their breathing problems) which affects both the mum and the puppies),
  2. Infections and problems with wound healing
  3. Rejection of the puppies. When a bitch doesn’t naturally give birth they often don’t recognise the puppies as their own so refuse to let them suckle.  The only way for them to survive is for the owner to hand-rear them, feeding them every two hours newborns.

Finally, caesarians are also very painful. This pain may worsen when nursing, making it more likely for her to reject the puppies.

The Kennel Club guidelines state that bitches from accredited breeders can only have two litters by caesarean section due to the risks and pain that this causes.  However, if the bitch is in labour and the puppies are stuck they NEED to have a caesarean otherwise both the mum and litter will die.  When performing a caesarean, vets will usually offer to spay the mum.  This doesn’t take much longer or increase the risks much but prevents further pregnancies.

 

Some Bulldogs/ Pugs have issues with their spine.  This malformation is related to their curly tail whereby one or more of their vertebra is a triangular shape (called hemivertebra) rather than a rectangle.  This causes their spine to develop a bend called Kyphosis.  This can be incredibly dangerous as well as painful.  If the affected vertebra is in the thoracic part of the spine it may cause the spine to be mal-aligned over the ribcage altering the shape of the chest cavity which can cause breathing problems.  In other areas, kyphosis or lordosis (a similar curved of the spine) may affect the nerves leaving the spine causing reduced the coordination of the legs and, in severe cases, causing paralysis.

This pugs eye is protruding from it’s socked. It also has damage to the cornea (the surface of the eye).

Brachycephalic breeds often have very prominent eyes.  Their squashed faces also cause their eye sockets to be shallower so their eyes to stick out more and are not held in place as securely.  As they are more prominent there is less tissue there to protect them.  As a result, it is more likely that brachycephalic dogs are more at risk of both eye infections (eg. conjunctivitis or uveitis) or, corneal ulcers (scratches to the surface of the eye) which may be difficult to treat.  Many brachycephalic animals have scars on their corneas from previous poorly healed ulcers.  They are also more prone to their eyes coming out of their sockets, something called exophthalmos.  Exophthalmos can happen with trauma to the head or the muscles holding the eye in place becoming weak.  If they get this, they must see a vet immediately.  If taken quickly, their vet may be able to put them back into place with minimal damage caused, though it may recur.  However, if this is left, not only will it cause excruciating pain, it can affect the vision potentially leading to blindness.  Also, without treatment, the eye will also become incredibly infected and damaged so the only available treatment is the removal of the eye.

So Why All the Media Attention and Campaigning?

Due to a large number of Pugs and French Bulldogs, in particular, being in the media, and kept by famous people, the numbers of these kept in the UK has sky-rocketed.  French Bulldogs are soon to overtake the Labrador as the breed with the most dogs registered with Pugs are not far behind (In 2016 French Bulldogs (21,470 registered dogs) were the 3rd most popular dog with numbers increasing by massive 147% from 2015 with Pugs (10,408 registered dogs) being the fourth behind Labradors (33,856 registered dogs) and Cocker Spaniels (21,854 registered dogs)).

However, Pugs and French Bulldogs are not just bred by KC-accredited breeders or from KC-registered dogs leading to a problem.  Many of these dogs are bred by people who don’t know what they are doing and may not realise the problems associated with breeding these dogs, potentially causing them to be in labour longer than they should prior to taking them for a caesarean.  As well as this, many are born in squalid conditions on registered or unregistered puppy farms in the UK and then sold in pet shops or from households where they weren’t born and without their mother but with a stooge dog.  Though these houses often appear nice, the early life of the puppy has been very traumatic and they have been placed in high-risk situations for a disease.  Finally, to meet demand, many Pugs and French Bulldogs are imported or smuggled into the UK from primarily Eastern Europe and Ireland.  These dogs may not have had their full vaccinations, not only putting them at risk but also risking introducing a nasty disease to the UK that isn’t already (eg. Rabies).  Their puppies have been through large amounts of stress which increases their likelihood of becoming ill.  Not only this but they often haven’t been socialised thus leaving them more at risk of developing behavioural disorders and phobias throughout their lives.

This shows the degrees of severity of brachycephaly based on the skull anatomy

 

A normally proportioned dog skull

The use of brachycephalic dogs in ads only adds fuel to the fire.  It keeps them in the public eye, thus increasing the number of people who want them when they otherwise may not have. Not only this, it glamorises the breed and makes it seem like they have fewer problems than the reality, leaving people who buy them unaware that their dog may be suffering and need expensive surgeries just to have a normal.  Ideally, the KC needs to try and alter the breed standards for these dogs and try to encourage breeding only from those without BOAS and with a longer muzzle.  This type may not be to everyone’s taste but it reflects how the breeds were only a century ago and will greatly improve their health, making these friendly dogs happier and healthier for future generations to enjoy.

 

 

I hope you found this blog both interesting and educational.  As mentioned earlier I am not against these dogs and do not want to see these dog’s, or the breeding of them, banned.  However, I feel that the way these are bred should be changed and more importantly, I want to raise awareness of the problems facing brachycephalic dogs to ensure they live healthier and happier lives.  In order to try and get the message across regarding brachycephalic breeds and improving their welfare, it would help if you could share this blog far and wide.

 

To check out more about the issues Brachycephalic dogs are currently facing check out the British Veterinary Association’s website and the Brachycephalic Working Group.

Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Pugs (and other Brachycephalic Dog Breeds)”

  1. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a colleague who has been conducting a little research on this. And he in fact bought me dinner because I discovered it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to discuss this subject here on your web site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *