Making noise about brachycephaly

Should vets be more vocal about the health problems of brachycephalic dog breeds?

John Bonner
06 March 2018, at 10:52am

Individual veterinary practitioners must be prepared to stick their head above the parapet and make more noise about the health problems of brachycephalic dog breeds, BVA members were told at their annual congress in London.

The meeting heard about the work of the BVA and other veterinary institutions to better understand the health problems of breeds like pugs and French bulldogs as well as the motivations of the dog owners that buy them.

But these efforts were undermined by the actions of bulldog-friendly practices that carry out procedures on these dogs with ‘no questions asked’ as well as reluctance of a larger proportion of practices to report conformation changing surgery to the Kennel Club, warned Sean Wensley, a senior vet with the PDSA.

Mark Evans, former chief veterinary advisor to the RSPCA, went further. He believed that the profession’s low-key attempts to influence public opinion will provoke a cynical response from its critics. “In a conversation I had with a journalist in 2008 when the Pedigree Dogs Exposed programme was broadcast by the BBC, I was told – ‘Why are you surprised that the veterinary profession is not more vocal about these issues? Who has got the biggest vested interest in a nation of disabled, deformed and disease-prone dogs – surely, it’s the people who are paid to fix them’.”

He welcomed the efforts to strengthen scientific understanding of the welfare issues in the affected breeds. But he argued that “Ten years ago, we already had enough science, experience and common sense to tackle many of these problems. Why haven’t we been more vocal? – who knows what impact we might have had?”

Scientific evidence

However, Dan O’Neill, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Royal Veterinary College, argued that it is vital that any actions taken by vets are supported by reliable scientific evidence. The RVC’s Vet Compass project was providing that data on the health status of brachycephalic breeds for the first time. It focussed on the overall population of first opinion practice patients rather than the unrepresentative sample of registered dogs included in Kennel Club data or the narrow range of cases seen in referral practice.

He confirmed that the Vet Compass data does indeed show that the reputation of brachycephalic breeds is well deserved. They have significantly higher rates of breathing problems, eye disease and dystocia than similar-sized breeds with a more normal cranial morphology, he explained.

The one bright spot in a report by Dr O’Neill and his colleagues published in the journal Canine Genetics and Epidemiology showed that the biggest health problem in French bulldogs, pugs and English bulldogs is the eminently treatable one of obesity. “At least that gives us some good news. You cannot stop a dog from being a pug, but you can stop it from becoming overweight and that hopefully will help us in dealing with their breathing problems,” he said.

The challenge going forward

Dr O’Neill warned that the health problems affecting brachycephalic breeds are likely to become even more serious over the next few years. These breeds have only recently become fashionable, so the average age of these dogs is lower than that of other breeds and conditions like corneal ulcers will become more prevalent as the dogs grow older, he said.

His RVC colleague Dr Rowena Packer offered an insight into why it is so difficult for vets to persuade clients that owning dogs of extreme breeds is a bad idea. She explained that the puppy-like head shape and affectionate nature of these dogs struck a particular chord with some owners who find them as a suitable outlet for their own parental instincts.

She feared that many owners of brachycephalic breeds will not listen to veterinary advice believing that their distinctive features are both ‘cute’ and perfectly normal for the breed. She argued that it may be difficult, or even impossible, to discourage those owners that have already become enamoured with these breeds. But it may be possible to persuade those clients that are more undecided to choose a puppy with the same appealing nature but a more robust constitution.