Would-be dog owners told to think twice before buying flat-faced breeds

Experts have urged would-be dog owners to reconsider buying squashed-faced animals such as French bulldogs, warning they are prone to life-limiting health conditions, and that buying such breeds could fuel criminal activity.

The pandemic has triggered a boom in dog ownership with Kennel Club figures revealing there has been a 12% rise in puppy registrations in the past year alone.

Experts have spoken out as data shows that squashed-faced, or brachycephalic, breeds are among those caught up in the swell.

Figures from The Kennel Club shared with the Guardian by the Brachycephalic Working Group (BWG) – a national body in the UK that includes charities, veterinary organisations, and the Kennel Club among others – have revealed that puppy registrations of both French bulldogs and English bulldogs rose by 17% in 2020 compared with 2019, continuing a huge rise in popularity in recent years.

While 227 French bulldog puppies were registered in 2000, this soared to a record 39,266 in 2020 – a rise of more than 17,000%. Registrations of English bulldogs were also at their highest since records began, with 11,594 puppies registered in 2020. What’s more, searches for French bulldog puppies through the Kennel Club’s “Find a Puppy” tool rose 112% from March to December 2020.

Dr Dan O’Neill, a senior lecturer in companion animal epidemiology at the Royal Veterinary College and the chair of the BWG, said the figures were troubling. He added that he thought the registrations covered only about a third of puppies in the UK – and generally only those from responsible breeders.

O’Neill said flat-faced dogs often had to undergo caesarean sections to deliver their puppies, while there had been a rise in the use of fertility treatments in such animals as their extreme body form meant they often struggled to mate or give birth naturally.

The desire for flatter faces and huge eyes in these breeds has led to such animals being prone to a host of serious health problems including eye ulcers and breathing difficulties, while they are also at increased risk of heatstroke, spinal problems and skin disorders.

Many of these dogs end up needing surgery to open their nostrils or remove soft tissue to help them breathe.

“We are doing surgery to correct something that we as humanity designed and bred into the dogs,” said O’Neill, noting that while work is under way to improve the health of such breeds, this was in its early stages.

Squashed-faced breeds have become staples in advertising, on products and across social media, while they have also joined the households of numerous celebrities, not least Lady Gaga.

O’Neill said the rapid rise in popularity of these breeds had produced further welfare issues, fuelling an illegal trade whereby puppies are bred in poor conditions and may be imported from abroad.

While O’Neill said the BWG was not trying to ban the breeds, but recommending people stop and think before buying a flat-faced dog.

Daniella Dos Santos, the senior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), which is involved with the BWG agreed.

“Many people are drawn to the cute, ‘baby-faced’ looks of pugs, French bulldogs and bulldogs, but it’s a sad fact that these breeds are much more susceptible to breathing problems that may require costly surgery to correct, as well as serious skin and eye conditions,” she said.

Vets Now, a pet emergency service that is not part of the BWG, told the Guardian the rise in ownership of flat-faced dogs had led to a “significant” increase in cases of such animals needing surgery to live a normal life.

“It’s very concerning and we’re worried that the pandemic puppy boom could lead to even greater numbers of dogs presenting at our emergency clinics and hospitals throughout the UK,” said Dave Leicester, leading emergency vet and head of telehealth at Vets Now, adding such procedures were expensive and could not guarantee a life free of health problems.

Dr Samantha Gaines, a dog welfare expert at the RSPCA, which is part of the BWG, said the charity had recorded a 1,567% increase in the number of French bulldogs being taken into its care over the last six years.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing more brachycephalic dogs, like French bulldogs, being abandoned and signed over by their owners because of their poor health and because their owners cannot afford their vet bills,” she said.

Leicester added snoring, wheezing and breathing with the mouth extended into a “smile” could unfortunately be described as “normal” for the breed.

“All of these signs show your dog is really struggling to get their breath which is at best distressing and at worst life-threatening,” he said.