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RVC study highlights breed loyalty for flat-faced dogs, despite substantial health risks

Popularity of flat-faced breeds has dramatically increased over the last decade

27 August 2020, at 4:00pm

According to a new study, 93 percent of owners of flat-faced dogs - including the Pug, French Bulldog and English Bulldog - would opt for the same breed again, despite experiencing common and severe health problems in their pets. The research, led by the RVC in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and Nottingham Trent University, also revealed that two-thirds (66 percent) of owners would recommend their flat-faced breed to others. The development of “breed-loyalty” towards flat-faced breeds is very concerning because it promotes the proliferation of these breeds despite their substantial health risks.

Flat-faced, or “brachycephalic” dog breeds suffer many severe and often lifelong health issues, including eye ulcers, breathing problems and heatstroke, relating to their typical body shape - particularly their characteristic flattened face. Despite the heightened risk of such welfare problems, which are often painful and distressing, the popularity of flat-faced breeds has dramatically increased over the last decade, with the French Bulldog now the UK’s most popular breed registered with the Kennel Club.

Although previous RVC studies found that owners are initially attracted to brachycephalic breeds due to their distinctive appearance, this latest study has revealed that behaviour traits are a core component of why owners “love” their breed and would recommend them to others; essentially, owners come for the looks, but stay for the personality.

Owners of all three breeds were very confident they would own “their” breed again in the future. First-time dog owners and those that had a very close relationship with their current flat-faced dog were most likely to want to own their breed again. Recognising that their current dog had severe breathing problems or were experiencing behaviour that was worse than they had expected reduced an owner’s desire to acquire their breed again in the future.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of these views, the study, which included over 2,000 owners of Pugs, French Bulldogs and English Bulldogs, asked owners to describe which aspects of their current breed they would or would not recommend in their own words.

Key reasons for owners recommending their breed included:

  • The perceptions that these dogs were loving and affectionate, loyal, comical, “clown-like” and playful.
  • A belief that they were suitable for households with children.
  • A perception that flat-faced breeds are “lazy” and require little exercise, so are suited to sedentary lifestyles with limited space.

Conversely, aspects of their breed that owners would not recommend included:

  • High maintenance requirements.
  • Impacts on owner lifestyle including excessive hair shedding and loud snoring.
  • Health problems being common and high vet bills.
  • Behavioural traits including stubbornness, neediness, and aggression.

Only a small number of owners cited concerns over ethical and welfare issues associated with breeding flat-faced dogs, such as irresponsible breeding practices and suffering associated with their body shape, as a reason that they would not recommend them.

Dr Rowena Packer, Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare Science at the Royal Veterinary College and leader of the study, said:

“With a multitude of stakeholders trying to tackle the current brachycephalic boom in the UK, our results are of real concern to these efforts. Understanding how breed loyalty develops towards brachycephalic breeds, and whether it can be changed once established, is key to reducing the popularity of short-muzzled breeds. If first time owners of flat-faced dogs choose these breeds for the rest of their lives, then the current crisis could continue for decades.

“Although strong focus has been placed upon dissuading new puppy buyers from purchasing brachycephalic breeds, as they are now some of the most popular breeds in the UK, attention should also be turned to current owners. Priority should be given to developing evidence-based strategies to help these owners consider lower risk, healthier breeds when acquiring future dogs. Our novel findings start this process by highlighting the key behavioural characteristics that this owner group value.”

Based on the results of the study, recommendations for prospective owners included considering alternative breeds with similar personality and behaviour traits, to not only avoid financial burdens but also prevent supporting breeding for extreme body shape in the name of desirable behaviours that are available in other breeds. In addition to this, it’s important for owners to not fall victim to assumptions; no breed is ‘off the shelf’ suited to live in households with children and pet behaviour is a result of nature (genetics) and nurture (their environment). Finally, all dogs need daily mental and physical stimulation and a mistaken perception of dogs not requiring exercise or being “lazy” can impact their welfare and instead, be a sign of poor health.

Bill Lambert, Head of Health and Welfare at the Kennel Club, said:

“We always urge people to do their research when getting a dog and so we’re not surprised that once having chosen a particular breed to fit their lifestyle, owners will remain loyal to that breed. This paper though, focusing on the range of reasons behind brachycephalic dog ownership, enables us and all those who care about breed health and welfare to know and understand more about why these dogs are so popular and demand continues to grow.

“Certainly many of the flat-faced breeds have wonderful characters but we are concerned about some owners who may not be so well informed and are simply unaware of potential health issues, placing looks first without finding out more about the breed or researching a breeder who prioritises health. There are also increasing numbers of these dogs bred outside any sphere of influence – including some imported from overseas – that are bred a certain way because it is perceived to be ‘cute’, with little regard for health and welfare.

“This research will certainly inform and accelerate our ongoing collaborative, evidence-based approach alongside breeders, vets and welfare organisations - which aims to reduce mass demand for these dogs - resulting in smaller numbers of better-informed owners, acquiring the healthiest examples.”