I unhappily present to you, an English bulldog. Cute, no doubt about it. They’re an exuberant, friendly, photogenic breed of dog. Easy to fall in love with. If you imagine one with a British accent, top hat and a monocle, they become painfully adorable and you will have a strong desire to own one as soon as possible.
Resist that unholy urge.
The sad truth is that English bulldogs are abominations of nature cursed with high rates of miserable health problems. Breeding these dogs for “cute” external appearance has led to an alarming prevalence of diseases with often-tragic outcomes. Although the health conditions of these animals are well documented, the breed is more popular than ever. This may be in part because many passionate bulldog lovers are wildly disconnected from an appropriate understanding of canine health. If you love something so much, it can’t be a problem, right? But we’re not talking about spicy hot Cheetos, we’re talking about a working airway.
Yeah but do dogs really need a trachea to breathe?
The classic bulldog face is the prototype for a condition known as brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS). This literally means “short-faced” and “air-don’t-go-to-lungs”. They are also chrondrodystrophic, meaning their skeletons don’t develop normally and can contribute to neurological and orthopedic diseases.* These issues are genetic baggage from selective breeding, and are also seen in the Pug, French bulldog, and other smashed (ahem, short)-faced dogs.
The list of adverse health conditions known to affect bulldogs (and similar breeds) is long. Just to name a few, they are overrepresented in skin and ear infections, prolapsed third eyelids and inwardly rolled eyelids (entropion), cryptorchidism, atopic dermatitis, corneal ulcers, umbilical hernias, dry eye (keratoconjunctivitis sicca), gastrointestinal disorders, periodontal disease, heart disease, cancer, and others. Their expected lifespan is an appalling 7 years, several years shorter than the vast majority of other dogs.
Why can’t we stop making bulldogs?
So owning a bulldog is like having a DVD of Halle Berry’s Catwoman on your shelf, right? With all of your options available, it’s one of the worst choices you could have made. You’d hope this (purely hypothetical, of course) person would be aware of how bad their taste in movies is, and not suggest that it is in fact better than average. Likewise, you expect that people who own bulldogs would have a realistic assessment of their dogs’ health.
But, you already know how this story goes (no, not Catwoman, which is full of exciting plot twists). A recent survey of English bulldog, French bulldog, and pug owners found that these people live in a fantasyland of illusions. The survey asked people about their pet’s health in several different ways, sometimes taking the direct approach (i.e. “can your dog breathe?”), and sometimes asking the same question through a series of more objective questions about their behavior, such as an owner-reported breathing (ORB) score. This is a clever way to get a more accurate picture of the animal’s health, since it somewhat bypasses the subjective feelings of the pet owner but still relies on their observations.
When looking at the same animal in these two different ways, the study found:
Based on owner replies to clinical questions, nearly 40% of dogs reached an ORB score indicative of clinically relevant airway obstruction . In contrast, when asked directly, only 17.9% of owners of these dogs considered their dog to have a breathing problem.
Which stinks, because breathing is essential for life, at least in the long run, at least for most mammals. It wasn’t that owners never recognized their animal had a problem, but:
…greater severity of signs was significantly associated with recognition of a problem in that domain, indicating that dogs may need to reach a critical level of clinical severity (a threshold) before owners consciously acknowledge their dog has a ‘problem’ that is somehow worse than just being ‘normal’ for the breed.
Much like seeing your friend drive a Chrysler Sebring, it’s gotta get real bad before you know there’s a problem. There were some other interesting findings from the study, including that owners of these dogs underestimated veterinary costs and how much exercise the animals would need. Which I mean, come on, there are higher veterinary costs because there are more things wrong with them, and people don’t exercise them as much because they can’t breathe normally. Those would be two good reasons to go with almost any other breed, except that these owners love their dogs so much. The authors measured the bond owners had with their dogs**, and it was higher than what’s been reported for other breeds.
Bulldog owners are bulldog people, they don’t think there’s a problem with their dog because these dogs are awesome! They are literally looking past all of these serious health disorders and getting completely enamored. Have you ever known someone in a bad relationship who was full of excuses for their partner’s terrible behavior? Did they own a bulldog? The authors speculate,
This deflection phenomenon may be driven by cognitive dissonance, where owners are aware of health problems in their dog’s breed, but find accepting these problems in their own dog as psychologically uncomfortable, instead deflecting the issues to other individuals. This may have led to the skewed distribution seen here, where a large proportion of owners, whose dogs by definition must be less healthy than average for their breed, overestimate their own dog’s health.
The health of most of these dogs, just like all the children of Lake Wobegon, was above average. And I would agree that it’s uncomfortable, psychologically and otherwise, to be part of the perpetuation of an animal without an appropriate respiratory system. It feels better to believe that there’s not a problem, than to know about it and know you’re partly responsible.
Conclusion: If you love something, you have to let it go
It’s pretty clear that we can’t keep breeding bulldogs as they are and ever expect them to be healthy. And yet denial of this truth seems firmly set in the bulldog-owning population. This study highlights the kind of wall science-based medicine runs into. Most people are probably all for applying scientific knowledge to better healthcare for their animals, but when that cold clinical assessment pushes up against the soft, Malassezzia-filled facial rolls of a bouncy English bulldog, what can you expect of people? What do you mean the dog I’ve wanted my whole life is literally a genetic dead end? Which region of our brains wins the gray matter tug of war, the “cuteness” neurons or the “I’m making bad choices” ones? Being factually correct is one thing, but understanding the emotions and beliefs that contribute to misperceptions is a requirement for long-term solutions to problems like the English bulldog.
There are a million problems with breeding animals for physical appearances and it’s not just bulldogs that are the problem. I’m not really judging anyone here, even if you drive a Sebring. I don’t hate bulldog owners, and the dogs genuinely are friendly and loveable. However, the continued disconnect between how people feel about their animals and health consequences of breeding needs to be explored. I have personally seen heart-breaking suffering in bulldogs related to their brachycephalic physiology. This misery is preventable, but will take more than documenting the actual medical problems in the animals themselves. Human psychology appears to be a significant barrier here, which is so often the case in science-based medicine.
*It also makes their spinal x-rays look like a jpeg compression error occurred.
**As measured by the Monash Dog-Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS).