Bob is a seven-year-old French bulldog with all the characteristics of that breed: wide-set round eyes, squashed nose and bat-like ears. He belongs to my friends and when they’re on holiday, my husband and I often look after him.
We love him — but the last time he came to stay, I was shocked by his deterioration.
Our half-a-mile plod round the block nearly finished him off; afterwards, it took him almost an hour to stop panting.
Lady Gaga with her Frenchie Koji
Cruel: Changing skull shapes can cause blindness
Like any other dog, he wanted to crash post-walk, but couldn’t breathe at all lying down. When I gave him a dog chew, it soon became clear that eating and breathing simultaneously was also impossible.
As a vet, I hate to see any animal in distress, but particularly when it’s because an animal has been bred to suffer. For Bob’s problems aren’t particular to him, they’re common to around half of his breed.
Fashionable ‘Frenchies’ are one of Britain’s most popular dogs and can sell for as much as £5,000. Beloved by celebrities including Madonna and Holly Willoughby, along with a host of online ‘influencers’, Instagram is awash with the photogenic pooches.
Oxygen-starved: Frenchies suffer from narrowed airways
Such is their value that Lady Gaga’s dog walker was shot during the recent theft of two of the singer’s three Frenchies (Koji and Gustav have since been returned). The brutality shocked the world, but there is another appalling story here: the fact that French bulldogs’ baby-faced appeal isn’t natural. We have bred them to have shorter faces purely to suit our own aesthetic preferences. And the consequences are dire.
Skin problems, eye conditions, breathing difficulties, frequent surgeries and shorter lifespans. The suffering caused by their looks is as real and tangible as if they were beaten.
Most recently, vets have warned that some breeds risk going blind, as over-breeding had led to changes to their skull shapes. This means the animals can’t close their eyes properly, which exposes them to a much higher risk of injury. And it’s not just dogs affected by our desire to prettify our pets. Rabbits, cats and even horses are suffering these days too.
Distressing: Horses ‘prettified’ with slim noses and huge eyes
Not so long ago, Persian cats had significantly longer faces, like any other moggy. Now their faces are so flat, their noses are often in line with their eyes.
Rabbits’ noses, too, have shortened while their ears have become longer and floppier. Even horses have fallen victim to human vanity — ponies that were once robust and hardy are now selectively bred for prettiness with concave rather than straight profiles, slim noses and bulging, cartoon-like eyes.
Wanting our pets to look a certain way isn’t new, but these days image is everything: social media has influenced the way we choose our pets, driving the demand for ever quirkier-looking animals. I’ve been a vet for 25 years and the problem is worse than ever. I run a website called Vets Against Brachycephalism — the technical term for breeding animals to have ‘flat’ faces.
Vets from all over write to me with their concerns. As one put it: ‘I keep seeing dogs who are chronically oxygen-starved and have a range of other long-standing and irrevocable problems. It is awful that they are becoming more and more popular. I believe the breeding of these dogs is an outrage and should be stopped.’ I couldn’t agree more.
The trouble is there is nothing more compelling than a cute animal picture — the more baby-like the better.
So why are we drawn to pets with rounder, flatter faces and googly eyes? Research shows the preference is ingrained in us because baby faces trigger our innate desire to nurture.
Taylor Swift with Scottish Fold cat Meredith
All mammals, even those with longer noses, are born with flatter faces because it helps with suckling. Baby humans and animals also have relatively large eyes. We think they look ‘cute’.
According to research by Oxford University, when we encounter something cute, it ignites fast brain activity in regions linked to emotion and pleasure. It also attracts our attention in a biased way: babies have privileged access to entering conscious awareness in our brains.
As well as celebrities sharing ‘cute’ pictures of pets, films and TV shows are a huge influence. Harry Potter, 101 Dalmatians, Beethoven, Disney’s Patrick and Game Of Thrones have all been followed by huge spikes in purchases of inappropriate pets — from giant dogs to highly energised huskies and even owls destined to live a miserable life stuck in a cage.
It’s bad enough such films encourage the purchase of inappropriate pets, but if the animals feature an extreme ‘brachy’ — the shorthand for animals with abnormally flat faces — it engrains the misconception that these animals are normal.
Flat-faced dogs tend to have narrow nostrils, with no space for the part of the nose that helps keep them cool during panting. Their jaws are too short so the teeth are crowded together, twisted and don’t function as they should. Their tongues block their mouths and their long, soft palates get sucked into their windpipes. They also tend to have narrow windpipes. This means their airways are compromised at lots of different levels.
Around half of Frenchies, pugs and English bulldogs can’t breathe normally. Air hunger is thought to be one of the most distressing things a mammal can suffer and these animals are dealing with this for most of their lives. Thousands require surgery to open their airways just to lead a bearable life.
There are many ‘cute’ or ‘funny’ videos doing the rounds on social media at the moment, showing these dogs falling asleep sitting up or sleeping with their teeth wedged open by toys or bones.
Dogs can’t breathe through their mouths when they sleep — so rely on breathing through their noses. However, many Frenchies, pugs and English bulldogs can’t do this either — that’s why some are forced to sleep upright or have learned to wedge their mouths open. So these videos are far from funny. They’re tragic.
Owners of flat-faced dogs often see their snorting and snoring sounds as normal, but they are all signs of respiratory distress.
Perhaps you’ve been tempted by a bulldog because you’ve heard they don’t need much exercise. It’s not that they don’t need it; their laboured breeding makes them incapable of it. Exercise is an innate behaviour in dogs, so if they can’t do it, they become frustrated.
There are further problems. While their skulls have become wider, rounder and shorter over time, the other tissues of the head haven’t changed. As a result, the skin wrinkles as the jaws have got shorter. All this extra skin can become inflamed and infected, requiring antibiotics and laborious cleansing regimes.
The eye sockets have become shallower, but the eyes are no bigger; they are just bulging out. This means they are prone to damage and, in some cases, even have to be removed altogether.
It’s a procedure I have performed myself. One specialist vet ophthalmologist says half his work these days is dealing with brachy dogs. And any surgery is not to be taken lightly — brachy dogs are a higher risk for anaesthetics and recovery because of their airways.
Today’s flat-faced cats are no better off. Their faces are so flat they are almost concave, and today’s Persians have coats that are so long even the most dedicated owners struggle to keep them tangle-free.
Every vet in small animal practice will have had to almost entirely shave a Persian cat due to matting.
Meanwhile, Scottish Fold cats, owned by the likes of Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, have folded ears that make their faces look round and cute. However, the gene that folds the ears by affecting the cartilage does the same thing in all the cartilage in their joints. This means fold cats are often crippled with arthritis.
Many vets simply can’t understand why breeders have chosen more and more abnormal and unnatural body shapes. Where breeders see beauty, we simply see disease.
For example, rabbits and horses are grazers, whose teeth grow continually — this means their teeth must fit perfectly together to wear down evenly as they eat.
But shorter faces mean the teeth don’t line up, and don’t wear down as they should. This can be fatal.
Horses cannot breathe through their mouths, so if you reduce their nasal air space, as happens when you breed them to have narrower noses, they experience breathing difficulties.
Humans have shaped dogs for thousands of years, but it used to be for skill; hunting, herding, guarding, pulling.
When it started back in 1873, the Kennel Club had 19 recognised breeds. Now we have more than 200 and some of them are so extreme the animals can’t lead a normal life.
Victim of human vanity: Favoured long ears are a disaster for disease
As well as the brachycephalic animals, you have dogs with long backs and tiny legs, like the increasingly popular dachshund, which tends to have a weak spine; animals with huge floppy or hair-filled ears like bassets and poodles, which have chronic infections, and in rabbits the lop ears are a disaster for abscesses and disease.
So-called ‘Munchkin’ cats with little legs can’t climb or get downstairs in some situations. The list goes on and it’s time it stopped.
We’ve reached the stage where brachycephalic dogs are virtually incapable of reproducing by themselves. The big heads and little pelvises mean natural births are difficult and the vast majority are born by C-section.
Many can’t breathe well enough to mate, so artificial insemination is popular. In 2015, there was one canine fertility clinic in the UK, now there are more than 30.
But if a breed can’t pass the most basic test of reproduction, should it be allowed to continue? Vets worldwide are stuck in an impossible ethical situation. If we stopped airway surgery and reproductive services for the top three brachy dog breeds, they would disappear within a couple of generations because they can’t survive naturally. These breeds can’t exist without human intervention.
Since October 2018, we have had a law in England that bans body shapes that could cause suffering in offspring. Yet no breeders have been prosecuted or had their licence revoked in that time.
But it’s you who can make the biggest and most immediate change to animal welfare. All you have to do is make the right choice — and the demand would stop.
Choose animals with a chance of leading long and healthy lives — not those born to suffer.
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