UCalgary initiative calls attention to health risks for flat-faced dog breeds

Faculty of Veterinary Medicine experts raise awareness to a variety of health challenges faced by increasingly popular brachycephalic breeds

At the University of Calgary, we believe in the power of shared knowledge and in the importance of community involvement. Today, we draw on those values to raise awareness about a pet-related issue that is close to the hearts of many community members - the health risks associated with brachycephalic (flat-faced) dog breeds.

Anyone who has been to a dog park in the last decade or has walked down the street has seen the increase in flat faced dogs - especially the French Bulldogs. The British Veterinary Association and American Kennel Club highlight that "Frenchies" have overtaken Labrador Retrievers as the most popular dog breed in those countries. In Canada, Frenchies are the fourth-most popular breed (after Labrador and Golden Retrievers, and German shepherds).

Brachycephalic breeds, such as bulldogs, pugs, and Boston Terriers, are characterized by their short snouts and flat faces. While these features make them adorably unique, they also predispose these breeds to a variety of health challenges, ranging from breathing difficulties to eye conditions.

Dr. Aylin Atilla, VMD, associate professor of small animal surgery at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM), highlights some of the health issues that are seen in these dogs.

"In addition to airway issues, we see allergic skin disease, eye problems, intervertebral disc disease, orthopedic problems such as floating kneecaps (luxating patellas), and hernias in which their stomachs slide into their chest and cause regurgitation. Additionally, there is growing recognition that some of these dogs are chronically exhausted because of difficult breathing while they are asleep, and their breathing problems can limit their ability to exercise."

There are surgical interventions to address some of these issues, but often recovery is the riskiest part of the procedures. "Some of the less-affected and healthy dogs can do swimmingly well. Others - especially the more affected, when you attempt to help correct things, can end in fatality. Back surgery can be successful, or they can become paraplegic for life," Atilla explains.

Dr. Daniel Pang, PhD, professor of veterinary anaesthesiology at UCVM, explains how fatalities can occur. "Brachycephalic breeds under anaesthetic are more predisposed to hypoventilation (a difficulty to breathe well under anaesthesia), regurgitation, and can’t intubate/can’t ventilate scenarios.

"Overall, the risk of anaesthetic-related complications during recovery is over four times higher in brachycephalic dogs compared with non-brachycephalic breeds."

Pang says while there are drug cocktails available to help offset some of these risks, "they are not a guarantee, add cost to the owner, as well as complexity to caring for these dogs. "

As Atilla says, "These are truly breeds where all specialists can work together."

So, with all these risks associated with these "flat-faced dogs," why has their popularity soared’

Many of these breeds were intentionally bred for companionship, making them excellent pets. Their popularity has been fueled by celebrities, influencers, and social media, leading to excessive and often haphazard breeding to meet market demand.

A global movement has recently emerged which advocates against using brachycephalic breeds in marketing due to their health issues. Numerous animal charities, academic institutions, breed and registration clubs, and professional veterinary associations, including the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, support this cause.

But still, they’re so darn cute! So, what should you think about before buying a flat-faced dog’

One can look for an ethical breeder that is breeding for health and not just looks - although many veterinarians would put forth an argument that based on breed conformations today, it’s clear there are very few ethical breeders.

Atilla has found that breeding clubs in the U.K. have worked with researchers to improve the condition of these dogs and have made a difference in the past decade.

Pang shares a more somber perspective: "After anaesthetizing over a hundred of these dogs (reflecting their increased popularity), I find the whole situation extremely depressing."

As the Royal Veterinary College, one of the world’s leading veterinary schools advises, "Stop and think before buying a flat-faced dog." If you are very set on one, ensure that you have an open conversation with your breeder about their awareness of, and support for, changes in breeding practices. You can also look for one with a longer nose. It’s a simple step toward ensuring a healthier, happier pet.

Pang goes a step further, pointing out that there are lots of wonderful mixed-breeds in need of loving homes, and who generally have fewer health problems than purebreds.