What to do about brachycephalic dogs?

“My dog has no nose.”

“How does he smell?”



(The image to the right, courtesy of the ‘Campaign for Responsible Use of Flat Faced dogs’, emphasises how the muzzle of the  French Bulldog has virtually disappeared.)


Joking apart, dogs with no noses not only exist but are becoming ever more popular - the French bulldog, the pug, the British bulldog to name but a few.  You know the ones I mean (or maybe you don’t?) – flat-faced dogs which have been bred to such an extreme that the skull simply does not have enough room to accommodate all the soft tissues of the head, both inside and out. 


The result? Let me count the ways. Protruding eyes with a tendency to pop out of their too-shallow sockets; excess skin folds under the eyes and over what’s left of the nose which rub on the eyes causing ulceration and which harbour chronic infection; nostrils squeezed into non-existence; and should a dog have the temerity to need to pant, the airways are found to be occluded by tongue and soft palate, resulting in chronic snoring at best; at worst, life-threatening choking.


This doesn’t include other conformational defects contributing to the list of breed-related abnormalities: malformed spines and tails, foreshortened bodies and bowed legs all may result in dogs which have trouble walking, let alone running. Finally, laughable if it were not so tragic, brachycephalic dogs may be fondly thought of as needing little exercise, when in reality they simply can’t run.


One could be forgiven for assuming the above to be a grisly horror-story construct, fit only to haunt nightmares. Yet such dogs appear to have become the darlings of the UK. With no hint of concern for the multiple health issues suffered by the breeds, indeed seemingly welcoming them, people are falling over themselves to spend exorbitant amounts of money to put a deformed canine ‘feather in their cap’. Spurred on by smaller varieties cuddled in arms by celebrities and media ‘influencers’ and larger ones posed in selfies to promote a ‘tough guy’ image, demand is outstripping supply. Pleas by charities and veterinary organisations not to buy flat-faced dogs accompanied by the litany of deformities leading to life-long welfare concerns have fallen on deaf ears, as must the chronic snoring apparently thought to be a necessary feature of such breeds.

So who are the stakeholders in this unwelcome phenomenon, in other words, those who have a present interest of some kind – for good and bad – as well as those who may have an influence in the future? 


Where is motivation for change, if any, likely to come from? Alternatively, what will block progress? Can the minds of those who are undeniably profiting financially by producing and selling puppies as well as of those enjoying all the benefits that the company of a dog of any kind  brings after their purchase be changed?  


Some comments regarding each of the stakeholders (as I see them) follow. 


1.    Breeders

However much one would like to, one cannot simply stop breeders producing their chosen breed. They can however be encouraged to select parents with less extreme features for their litters so that over time, healthier progeny will be produced but without losing the desired character of the breed. Responsible breeders may well be doing this already though their efforts are being swamped by the influx of poorly-bred puppies made available by the unscrupulous. 


Should how their bitches get pregnant in the first place be regulated? The apparent proliferation of canine fertility clinics could be put to good use if only sperm from the most anatomically normal sires were used.


No bitch or sire which has needed corrective surgery for breed-related defects of any description should be used for breeding.


2.    Kennel Club and show judges

The current breed standards for the French Bull dog, pug and Bulldog state that ‘a dog showing respiratory distress is highly undesirable’. It is a measure of how prevalent and normalised respiratory distress has become that such a damning phrase should be thought necessary. This should be urgently amended to ‘any dog showing respiratory distress will be immediately disqualified’. All other conformational defects are highlighted in the breed descriptions to alert judges to their presence. But how much damage has already been done to the breed by the time breeders are penalised in the show ring for these defects?

If any dog reaches a show ring and exhibits defects, either when vetted-in or during judging, in a ‘brave new world’ (the operative word being ‘brave’) it should be neutered.


3.    Prospective and current owners

It’s easy and may feel justified to lay the blame at the door of ‘stupid’ and ‘ignorant’ owners, seemingly immune to science and common sense, who are just following a fashion trend - whether wealthy celebrities or those who simply love the look and nature of such dogs. But is telling them in an authoritative and science-based manner the way to go? They will be forced to defend their entrenched position if criticised. Hearts, as well as minds, need to be changed.


Our brains play peculiar tricks on us, not allowing us to be able to change our minds over issues in which we have invested a great deal of emotion, time, and not least money.  Also, the more it has cost in terms of veterinary treatment, including corrective surgery to allow some semblance of reasonable quality of life for an individual dog, may reinforce the purchase of such needy animals, rather than deter. The more we spend on an animal, the better our adaptive evolutionary need to be ‘caregivers’ is fulfilled.


Ridiculous amounts of money are being paid for unhealthy puppies which would be better saved to pay for the continuing healthcare these dogs will need. But apparently ‘the more you pay, the more it’s worth’. Could it be that warnings along the lines of ‘Flat-faced dogs are bad for your bank balance’ would be more effective than attempting to increase awareness of their health and welfare concerns?


4.    Vets

Vets seem to be in a dilemma – caught between doing what they can for an individual animal in distress and what should be done for a whole breed’s distress. Then there is the additional burden of what to do when practice policy (often dictated by non-vets) is at odds with personal ethics and what the client in the consulting room requires of them. On top of all that, there is the question of whether the Royal Vet College will approve of and support their decision. 


Just as a client must give informed consent to a surgical procedure, so must individual vets be free to refuse to give consent for a procedure they disapprove of, unless certain conditions are met. I seem to remember a time when any bitch requiring a second caesarean section was automatically spayed. Also that surgical correction of breed-related defects had to be reported. Is such an approach untenable today? Of course, there are unforeseen complications of pregnancy that require emergency surgery but the routine performance of elective Caesars on bitches known to be unable to give birth naturally is surely perpetuating the problem as effectively as unscrupulous dealers or breeders. 


Similarly, would expecting specialist referral centres, which must have seen hugely increased revenue from BOAS-afflicted but insured animals to make neutering a condition of operating too much to ask? At the very least, there should be a requirement for corrective surgery to be recorded and to be mandatorily available for review by anybody that asks for it.


5.    Rescue societies and welfare organisations

Every opportunity must be taken to stress that dogs born with tiny noses and nostrils, overly wrinkled skin, bulging eyes and who habitually snore, while they may well be in need of loving homes, are NOT normal. 


However well-intentioned, the rescue of brachycephalic dogs inadvertently but inevitably, runs the risk of promoting the appearance of such dogs as ‘normal’. Every effort should be made to tactfully point out the structural abnormalities but without reducing the dog’s chance of a good home. It goes without saying that all dogs offered for rescue must be neutered.


The selection of the image above of a relatively decently-conformed and admittedly appealing brachy to accompany an article in this week’s Vet Times, detailing the huge welfare concerns that exist regarding their conformation and how to solve them, has sent out mixed messages par excellence. 


6.    Government and enforcement agencies

There are many calls for those in authority to do something. Who are ‘they’ and what are they supposed to do? Is legislation or regulation the answer? But of what, by whom and how? Prosecution and punishment or positive persuasion? Legislation is only effective if enforceable and preventative. At which point in the vicious circle of events would making an action either illegal or mandatory be the most effective in preventing the end-product – that of a deliberately disabled dog?


7.    Puppy smugglers/dealers/farmers

It is without doubt that the need for ‘pandemic puppies’ has resulted in an explosion of poorly bred and reared puppies becoming available by various and nefarious means. Is supply meeting demand or demand fuelling supply? Even the less cerebrally-endowed among prospective owners can surely see the sense in advice such as to ‘see a puppy with its mother’ with the intended result of preventing puppies of unknown provenance changing hands at motorway service stations. Yet all reason flies out of the window when faced with the attraction of a ‘must-have’ dog, following a trend and prospective owners fall easy prey to crafty puppy farmers and dealers.


Puppy smuggling, as with many other illegally imported and abused dogs (those with no microchip or cropped ears for example), will only be tackled if Border Controls are tightened and officers themselves are educated as to what a normal dog looks like.


8.    Trading standards

It has ever been the case that prosecutions may be more successful if brought under trading standards, rather than welfare, legislation. As with pet theft, dogs, currently at least, are treated as any other inanimate item that can be bought, sold and of course stolen. The item sold has to be ‘fit for purpose’ - the purpose in the case of an animate puppy, that of being able to live a normal healthy life. It is a supreme irony in a supposedly welfare-oriented society that this callous but pragmatic approach may be the only route to take to have a chance of securing the conviction of a supplier of such ’goods’. 

9.    Teachers

A recent study has shown that dog bite prevention education, as indicated by a relative reduction in hospital reported dog bites, may be more effective if delivered to children than adults. Information may be better assimilated beforeadult preferences and prejudices are formed. Could the same be true regarding the downside of brachy breeds and included in any lessons provided about animal welfare? 


Could it be that ‘drip-feed’ education, from nursery school upwards regarding what a normal dog looks like, be at least part of the answer?


 Photo credit: Psychology Today


10.  THE DOGS!

And finally, we come to the major stakeholder in all of this - the animal condemned to a life of ill-health and suffering. In creating such distortions of anatomy, we have taken advantage of the domestic dog’s supreme adaptability in meeting human demands to totally unacceptable extremes. The behaviour of dogs may well have led us to believe, wrongly as it happens, that their raison d ’etreis to please us. We cannot distort and deform their appearance in order to similarly ‘please’ us as well. We must tell it as it is. Anatomical distortion causes suffering – end of. We cannot pull any punches or sacrifice honesty on the altar of financial profit, corporate business, political correctness and client sensibilities. Every opportunity, however small, should be taken to register our disapproval and emphasise that the welfare of the dog is paramount at every turn, in whatever position we find ourselves in. 


I rest my case.


Kendal Shepherd

2nd March 2021


DDA section from 'Demystifying Dog Behaviour for Veterinarians'
My experience of the Dangerous Dogs Act - why extending the breed ban to include XL Bullies may be an unmitigated disaster.
DDA section from book.pdf
Adobe Acrobat Document 224.1 KB
Table comparing bull breed standards
Table includes the UK Government XL Bully standard and illustrates how using breed standards to identify potential danger is an utter nonsense and always has been.
Table comparing bull breed standards.pdf
Adobe Acrobat Document 137.8 KB