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The Most Popular Breed, But at What Expense? French Bulldog Health and Welfare

Updated: Mar 8

In 2018, French Bulldogs had overtaken the Labrador Retriever as the UK’s most popular dog breed for the first time since records began. The French bulldog, or “Frenchie”, is a sturdy, solid, compact small dog with a short and smooth coat.



French bulldogs are ‘brachycephalic’, due to their flat and wide-shaped head. French bulldog’s facial features are similar to those of a human infant, a phenomenon known as neoteny. Neoteny, as well as the fact that they are perceived to be good family dogs, with good characters and not needing huge amounts of exercise (not strictly true) are reasons they have become such a popular pet. 


However, despite its cute looks and baby-like face, the shortened muzzle, alongside other issues, comes with a price on health and welfare. Body exaggerations such as the flat face, big eyes and snuffly breathing that promote these health issues are often perceived as ‘cute’ or ‘normal’ for the breed and, worryingly, ‘desirable’. A study found that some owners thought more about aesthetics than longevity when picking their brachycephalic dog. This article aims to investigate these health implications, to help owners understand the importance of health testing and picking animals will have less extreme conformation, to help improve the health and welfare of these dogs. 


History of the breed


Contrary to what the name suggests, the origin of the breed is english. It originates from smaller, lighter descendants of the English bulldogs of 200 years ago. Around the time of the industrial revolution, many lace-makers from Nottingham emigrated to France taking their canine companions with them, where they became popular among ordinary Parisians. A third country played a part in the creation of the breed: the “bat ears” so important for the breed standard were set by American breeders. The breed was recognised by the Kennel Club in 1906, and its numbers have since continued to grow.


Health problems


New study from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) suggests urgent intervention is required as identified health issues of French Bulldogs are closely associated with its extreme body shape. This is something veterinary professionals have been extremely vocal on over the years however sadly the demand for these puppies continues to soar.



Urgent intervention is now required to reduce the high rate of health issues currently seen in the breed, we want to support breeders who aim to shift their puppies away from the extreme conformation and shape.


Although this focused on French bulldogs, it is not unreasonable to concur that similar issues are seen with other brachycephalic breeds, and the evidence tells us that they are. The idea that brachycephalic breeding requires some substantial intervention to improve the health and welfare of these popular pets who currently suffer considerable health implications due to their conformation should be supported and encouraged.


Unfortunately, the rising demand for puppies is accompanied by welfare concerns. The intrinsic issues associated with the breed, together with poor quality breeding practice, predispose a huge number of dogs with exaggerated physical conformations to health problems.


The UK Animal Welfare Regulations stipulates that dogs cannot be used for breeding if their health, genotype and phenotype are likely to have adverse health effects on their offspring.  With many brachycephalic dogs their health and welfare is compromised by unethical breeding practices and undermines the efforts of the few breeders attempting to breed for healthier, less extreme conformation. French Bulldogs with their shorter noses, excessively curved spines or legs puts them at risk of numerous health issues and diseases such as:


  • Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome

  • Ocular disease

  • Spinal problems

  • Dental problems

  • Skin infections and allergies

  • Patella luxation

  • Inability to give birth naturally


Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome


Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS), is characterised by anatomical defects of the upper airway causing a range of symptoms such as breathing difficulties, exercise intolerance, overheating, sleep apnoea and regurgitation. Up to 50% of individuals are affected by this condition, which can severely affect quality of life and reduce the lifespan of the dog.
Dogs that are affected may require regular visits to the vet and corrective surgery. 


In brachycephalic dogs, while the length of the muzzle/snout is reduced as dogs are bred with flatter faces, there is often no decrease in the size of the soft tissue contained within the skull. Essentially their skeletal muzzle gets shorter, but none of the soft tissue structures do.


This can cause a number of issues:


  • Stenotic nares (small or pinched nares/nostrils)

  • Aberrant nasal turbinates (the bony turbinates extending too far caudally/backwards beyond the nasal cavity)

  • Overcrowded turbinates

  • Over long and thick soft palate (the soft tissue that can pleat at back of mouth causing airflow issues)

  • Hypoplastic trachea (underdeveloped or too narrow windpipe)

  • Soft tissue constricts air flow within the nasal cavity and can cause a partial obstruction of the pharynx and larynx area


Dogs often require corrective surgery in order to improve their welfare. BOAS doesn't just have implications on adequate respiratory function but also cardiac health and thermal regulation


Ocular (eye) disorders


Brachycephalic Ocular Syndrome (BOS) is the result of the extreme facial alterations that many people find so appealing in brachycephalic breeds.  However these large, protruding eyes can lead to ophthalmic complications that can put these dogs’ vision at risk!


These breeds can suffer from a number of issues from their prominent puppy dog eyes:


  • Macroblepharon (excessive eyelid length)

  • Excessively long palpebral fissures (area between open eyelids)

  • Lagophthalmus (incomplete closure of eye lids)


This leads to inadequate ocular coverage and lubrication which usually protects the eye surface.


Sadly this results in:

  • Trauma of the eye

  • Exposure keratopathy (disease of the cornea)

  • Superficial pigmentary keratitis (development of pigmentation associated with chronic inflammation)

  • Corneal erosion

  • Corneal ulceration


Neurological Disorders


Another issue which is seen more commonly in our brachycephalic dogs is spinal deformities and neurological disorders. Furthermore, brachycephalic screw-tailed dogs, including the French Bulldog, Pug and British Bulldog, are commonly affected by vertebral malformations.


These include:


Hemivertebra: 

  • When the vertebrae of the canine spine are congenitally deformed

Spinal curvature abnormalities:

  • Abnormal curvature in the dogs spine can put it out of alignment this can look like...

Kyphosis:

  • The posterior (up and down) curvature of the spine

Scoliosis

  • The lateral (side to side) curvature of the spine


Sleep Deprivation


Brachycephalic dogs can be chronically sleep deprived, and the impact of this on their welfare is often underestimated. Brachycephalic dogs have more disturbed sleep, which in one study, suggested that it may have negative implications on welfare. There is evidence that signs suggestive of brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) correlates with poorer sleep quality, indicating that reduced sleep quality is part of BOAS. Sadly owners may underestimate disturbed sleep or may perceive disturbed sleep to be normal. This is commonly seen in 'cute' online videos of dogs falling asleep with toys or chews in their mouths. This is far from the truth - these dogs prop their mouths open to help them breathe more easily whilst sleeping. It is distressing to see that people believe this to be funny and normal.


Humeral condylar fractures and fissures 


FBDs are reported to be at an increased risk of developing humeral condylar fractures (HCF). Young FBDs are seen to be at much higher risk, with 89% of FBD in the study presenting before the age of 12 months. This finding is consistent with previous reports which identified FBD as the most common breed presenting with HCF under 12 months of age, and they are reported to be 49 times more likely to develop an HCF when compared with the general population.


Perioperative Respiratory compromise


French bulldogs hospitalised for the management of intervertebral disc extrusion (IVDE) are frequently affected by respiratory compromise, typically brachycephalic-associated upper respiratory obstruction and/or aspiration events. Multiple factors can contribute to the development of BOAS-associated respiratory compromise during hospitalisation, including patient temperament, prior experiences in a veterinary setting, concurrent gastrointestinal disease, pain and core temperature. A study found that a total of 306 dogs diagnosed with IVDE were included. Sixty dogs (19.6%) experienced respiratory compromise, of which 31 dogs (10.1%) progressed to cyanosis, collapse or respiratory arrest.


Dystocia/ Difficulty giving birth


Many brachycephalic breeds can have difficulty giving birth, known as dystocia. French bulldog bitches have been found to be 15.9 times more likely to suffer from difficult births (dystocia) than crossbred bitches, according to a series of studies from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). And, among female dogs that had problems giving birth, French bulldog bitches are then 2.4 times more likely to undergo invasive caesarean sections than crossbred dogs.


What can I do as an owner to promote the health of my dog?


Learning to distinguish signs of disease, illness and respiratory distress is very important, and can be life saving for your pet.
Many behaviours such as ‘smiling’ by pinching their facial muscles, noisy breathing and snoring can sometimes be mistaken for funny or typical for the breed, while they might be a sign of your pet struggling to breathe properly. Reporting any abnormalities to your veterinary team will help identify and address potential issues.
French bulldogs are also six times more at risk of suffering from heat-related illness in comparison to other dogs. Common triggers are exercise, hot weather and confinement in a vehicle. This breed has a decreased capacity to thermoregulate. It’s important to be vigilant at all times, and be familiar with effective cooling mechanisms in case of an emergency. Keep your dog lean, as obesity can impair temperature regulation. Prompt action alongside your veterinary team when any illness is noted can help prevent deterioration. 


Ensuring healthier future generations


Owners, vets and breeders all play a role in making sure that the next generations of French bulldogs sees a brighter future.


Several organisations are working together towards this goal by


  • increasing awareness of breed-related issues

  • promoting healthier breed standards

  • promoting breed health schemes

  • encouraging research


In March 2021, the UK Brachycephalic Working Group produced a document called “Stop and think before buying a flat-faced dog”, inviting people to reflect on the health issues associated with the breed and potential veterinary and insurance costs.



I’m thinking about buying a French bulldog. What should I do?


Gather as much information as possible from reliable sources. Given the predispositions, is buying a FBD the right decision? Are you both emotionally and financially able to provide for a dog with so many known health conditions? 


Book a pre-adoption or pre-purchase consultation with your vet to discuss potential health issues so you are fully informed about the implications of owning a dog with increased health risks. Purchase from a responsible breeder who is health testing and aiming to breed with less extreme conformation. Familiarise yourself with the available health tests by consulting the Kennel Club and French Bulldog Club of England websites. Consider using the puppy contract to get all the information you need before buying your new puppy (more information here: https://puppycontract.org.uk/puppy-buyer)


What about a rescue?


Rescuing a dog can be a great option to find the perfect companion and offer a better life to a dog at the same time! There are many breed-specialised rescue associations that can help you find a suitable companion. It’s important to keep in mind that some rescue animals come with pre-existing health problems that might be classified as exclusion on insurance policies.



Links:


French bulldog club of England http://www.frenchbulldogclubofengland.org.uk

Brachycephalic working group http://www.ukbwg.org.uk

Cambridge BOAS research group https://www.vet.cam.ac.uk/boas


Robyn Lowe

BSc Hons, Dip AVN (Surgery, Medicine, Anaesthesia) DipHE CVN, RVN

Director: Veterinary Voices UK


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