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How can the profession make a real difference when it comes to brachycephaly?

02 May 2019, at 9:30am

At VetsSouth, Emma Milne spoke about the ongoing issues with the popularity of brachycephalic breeds

Brachycephaly isn’t a new problem; the first paper on brachycephaly in dogs is almost 100 years old and around 60 years ago, the WSAVA announced that it would unanimously declare that breed standards should not include requirements and recommendations that hinder the physiological function of organs and parts of the body. We have known about the problem for all that time, but the conformities are still getting worse, and brachycephalic breeds continue to grow in popularity among owners.

At VetsSouth 2019, vet, author and animal welfare activist Emma Milne spoke passionately about the growing problem. We have reduced the number of brachycephalic animals that are shown in adverts. The Breed to Breathe campaign is a great initiative with a 10-point plan that can be put into practice and FECAVA has developed a position statement which states that health and welfare should come before looks. “So, we do have a strong and united veterinary voice about the issues,” Emma said.

A big step was taken in October 2018, when the first law came into force that has protected the future offspring of animals. The Animal Welfare Regulation states that “No dog may be kept for breeding if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of its genotype, phenotype or state of health that breeding from it could have a detrimental effect on its health or welfare of its offspring.”

“I think anyone who produces a litter of a brachycephalic breed could be convicted under this law,” Emma said, emphasising that we need a test case. If you see a new client with an extremely brachycephalic puppy, you can explain the problems it will face and you can talk to them about prosecuting that breeder, she said. “And I really hope someone will do it.”

What more can practices do?

We need to be stronger and clearer in the way we speak to clients and breeders – we must stop using the term “normal for the breed” and note everything on their clinical records; it is not normal for a dog to have these problems.

Nurses can have a big impact with monitoring the practice’s social media posts. It’s not OK to post about cute brachycephalic animals that come into practice, Emma said. As well as social media policies, we need practice policies across the board stating that the practice will not help with fertility and will not perform planned C-sections. With extreme conformations more generally, many of the known problems also shouldn’t be covered by insurance; money can make a big difference to people, she added. And make sure that at least one person in your practice is reporting conformational alterations and C-sections. “The Kennel Club needs us to report these so they can make changes.”

Getting the message across to clients

Put the question to your practice: how can we get to people before they buy a brachycephalic pet? We need more pre-purchase advice and education. It is also worth discussing if new owners could talk with the nurse before they see the vet. “Remember that the owner has spent hours with the breeder hearing all the positives; you’re going to be the enemy shooting it all down in 10 minutes.” Time is key to approaching this issue sympathetically, Emma said.

She suggested that framing the problems in terms of welfare needs can be an effective way to communicate the health issues linked to brachycephalism to clients.

For example, when considering environment, explain that brachycephalic dogs will start panting at temperatures 10 to 15 degrees cooler than a non-brachycephalic dog. This is a real issue, particularly in warmer parts of the world. In terms of diet, most, or possibly all, brachycephalic dogs have got some signs of chronic ulceration and changes of inflammation in their guts. We know herniation and reflux are problems, as well as malocclusion and prehension.

Brachycephalic dogs have numerous behaviour and social issues; “they must be frustrated with not being able to do the things they want to do”. Pugs, for example, are very social animals and we see lots of excessive guarding as a displacement behaviour, she explained.

And, of course, many brachycephalic animals are not free from pain and disease. There are lots of issues beyond BOAS, such as neuropathies, the inability to reproduce and corneal trauma. The inability to reproduce is, in Emma’s opinion, fundamental. “Something has gone badly wrong if we accept that these breeds must be assisted to reproduce – both with mating and giving birth.”

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