Friday 6 May 2016

Open letter to UK vets: stand up and be counted on the brachycephalic issue

There is an epidemic in the UK that is killing dogs and maiming those it doesn't kill.

It is not leptospirosis, nor babesiosis nor Alabama Rot. It's not even parvo.

The disease is called brachycephaly and it causes more suffering than all of the above put together.

Today in the UK (and much of the developed globe), you can barely step out of your front door without tripping over a wheezing Pug, Bulldog or  Frenchie.

• The Kennel Club registered 2,000 Pugs in 2005 and 10,000 last year: a five-fold increase.

• The past 10 years has seen a doubling in the number of Bulldogs (up from 3,000 to 7,000 KC registrations in 2015).

• In 2005 the KC registered just 324 French Bulldogs. Last year? The KC registered 14,607 of them.

That's a more-than 4000% increase!

That's thousands upon thousands of dogs in the UK that:

• spend their lives fighting for air
• are robbed of the delight of walking on a summer's day because they can't cool themselves
• have deformed mouths with almost ubiquitous periodontal disease
• endure chronic skin infections from the wrinkling that invariably accompanies a short face
• suffer painful eye injuries because they don't have the buffer of a muzzle to protect them
• have twisted spines because of the demand for short backs and a screw tail (or no tail)
• often can't mate or be born without assistance

And what are you vets doing about it?

Let me tell you.

You organise CPD days on how to manage the increasing number of creatures that turn up at your practice doors gasping for air.

You refer clients on to soft-tissue specialists who do their best to remedy the deformity that has been bred into them by cutting away the gobs of flesh that block their airways while hoping they don't arrest on the table.

You section that Bulldog and say nothing to the breeder about how wrong it is that the dogs are no longer capable of birthing their own pups.

And you smile ruefully at memes like this on your closed social media groups.

And when a client walks through your  practice door with a Bulldog, Pug or French Bulldog puppy... you coo along with the best of them - because those that don't risk losing a paying customer.

You are of course all too aware of the problems. I know because you tell me - although almost always in confidence because publicly you have to distance yourself from me. That's because you all too often buy the kennel club-and-breeder line that calling for the right for a decent lung-full of air makes me a dangerous radical. 

At the top level of your profession, meanwhile, there is institutional kow-towing to the Kennel Club  and a reluctance to do anything other than accept their platitudes that they have to take things slowly or risk "losing" the breeders.

Did you know that the Pug breed standard specifically states that Pugs should never be "lean or leggy"? That it still states that a double curl in the tail is "highly desirable" (a clear invitation to hemivertebrae further up the the spine)?

Did you know that although the Frenchie standard demands a "well defined muzzle" there are dogs winning in the UK show-ring that look like this?

And that if you put a longer-muzzled Frenchie like this in the ring,  it would never win?

Were you aware that although they're supposed to have "open nostrils" judges routinely reward dogs with nares like this:

Ch Boule and Onuba Zinderella at Sealaw - Top French Bulldog 2013

Did you know that this Bulldog was shown at Crufts this year? 

And this one?

This dog, by the way, is a good example of Bulldog breeders' desire for a good "layback". 

You want to know what that means?

On a "correct" Bulldog, you are supposed to be able to lay a ruler from a Bulldog's forehead to the upper tip of its undershot lower jaw.  Yep, it's a fault if the dog's nose is too proud to prevent it.

Did you know that there still isn't a single health test that a Pug, Bulldog or Frenchie has to pass to be registered by the Kennel Club - not even those bred under the supposedly-elite Assured Breeder Scheme?

If you're asking why I focus so much on the Kennel Club and the show-ring, it is because it's the sole reason that there were Bulldogs in 1906 that looked like this:


And Bulldogs now that look like this...

In particular, I focus on the Kennel Club because it is vulnerable to strong pressure - as we saw after Pedigree Dogs Exposed.

The scientific evidence is overwhelming with paper after paper elucidating the cost to the dogs of being bred to meet some people's dysfunctional need for a dog that looks like a baby. And, incidentally, just like with a baby, they have to wipe these dogs' bottoms as they cannot reach round to clean themselves. 

One German vet who breeds them herself told me she didn't think this was a problem. 

The  Pug-breeding Austrian-born vet who oversees the vet checks at Crufts is on the record saying the short muzzle in and of itself is not the problem.

But other vets are calling time on the brachycephalics - and they are putting most UK vets to shame.

In Sweden last year, over a thousand vets put their name to an open letter demanding urgent action. Last month, the Norwegian Kennel Club came out and said that things had to change for the brachycephalics. (See here)

In consultation with vets, the Dutch KC now insists on functional tests before Bulldogs can be bred.

Here in the UK, though, whenever the issue is mentioned officially by the profession , it is always conflated with the issue of flat-faced puppies being imported legally or illegally from abroad. Sure, this is a problem, but it diverts from the central issue which is that the design is fundamentally flawed and something needs to be done about it.  

I'll say this, too: the overseas-bred puppies may have been bred in poor welfare circumstances, but they often have more moderate features and I bet a pound to a dollar the puppy peddlers aren't forking out for expensive C-sections that cut into their profits.

Let me put it even more bluntly: 

UK vets... in not speaking up, you are failing these dogs. It is not enough to just treat them.

If I thought it would work, I would start an open letter or petition for UK vets to sign. But it would be so much more effective if it came direct from the profession.

I have been lobbying so hard on this now for so long.  I am exhausted and frustrated that there isn't more support from the very people that know first-hand how awful the situation is and how much it needs to change. 

So please.. will one brave vet put his or her head above the parapet and start this?  Now?

Because it is, frankly, time for UK vets to grow a pair. 


  1. Agree with the above but vets have very little clout with judges or breeders.

    1. But maybe vets can be a credible source with pet owners and help them to make more rational decisions when selecting a pet. If the market demand for deformed animals dries up, breeders will be forces, but economics, to make changes.

    2. I have another theory. People show their dogs to get points to get status to help promote their kennels and sell more pups and sperm at higher prices. If we (vets) educate the public about the serious harm imposed by brachycephalism (and the huge costs of keeping these mutants alive), the demand for these breeds will go down and breeders will sure notice that. Hit them where it hurts - in the wallet. But to do this we (vets) ALL need to start being open, honest and outspoken about brachycephalism. And for crying out loud, get all the "cutsie" photos and videos of brachys off your social media. Use these images to point out all the negatives associated with that anatomy, not to promote how "adorable" it is.

  2. Agree entirely. Vets are failing here. Ashamed to be one sometimes. Tom MRCVS

  3. More than happy to support it, but how best to achieve understanding and change in breeders? A petition? Really?
    I fear it will take much much more. Vikki MRCVS

    1. It would articulate the depth of feeling (that I know is there). A good response would trigger media headlines, debate and - what I think will work - a working party which puts forward strong proposals such as breed standards to introduce a minimum cranioacial ratio/beefed-up vet checks/profession statements aimed at educating the public/compulsory reporting of procedures that alter conformation.

    2. Hi Jemima,

      I am a vet (in Ireland) and here I am speaking representing the view of the profession in Ireland as represented by Veterinary Ireland.

      Your anger at the current state of these poor dogs is absolutely justified. It makes me so so so angry that every pug I see coming in to me has to be referred for surgery to allow it to breath properly. It is an absolute disgrace that humans have manufactured such a situation and as vets we feel it is our job to get undone the harm humans have done in this regard.

      Our general policy in the Irish veterinary profession, as represented by Veterinary Ireland, is:

      "The veterinary profession should strive to ensure improvement of the genetic makeup of animals so that surgical procedures are not routinely necessary to correct underlying genetic failings of a certain species or breed."

      Specific to pugs Veterinary Ireland has set a goal that within a decade all pugs that are born will be able to breathe without needing surgery. We are working with the Irish SPCA and Dogs Trust Ireland on this. When I lectured on this at our last National Animal Welfare Conference (using photos like yours) our Minister for Agriculture (who was in attendance) voiced his agreement with and support for our position.

      We obviously have to help the ones that come in that cannot breathe - if they need surgery then we have to do it - but we should tell breeders in no uncertain terms that these dogs must not be bred from and that they must not tolerate a situation whereby all of their 'produce' cannot beathe. We also have to make the Kennel Clubs change the breed standards and finally we have to tell the public that they should only buy pugs from breeders that have signed up to the new standards. The breeders and Kennel Club will not like this but frankly we don't care. If they don't come along of their own volition then they are just wrong and will be made come along.

      The last such goal we set was to ban tail docking and to have all cosmetic procedures on animals made illegal and we won. We will win this now.

      Dr Alan Rossiter MVB

    3. I agree one hundred percent with Dr Alan Rossiter. I think the BVA needs to take this on board as well. Their statement falls short yet again! One has to wonder why they still think the KC is going to do anything about anything unless forced to do so?? How reliant is the BVA on research funding from the KC one has to still wonder and how much is that ironically at the expense of pedigree dogs.

      The nasty habit of the KC making it sound like they're going to do something about any of it and yet doing nothing is a habit that needs cracking open once and for all!

  4. I am going to help spread this message because I abhor brachycephalic anatomy and simply cannot understand how any veterinarian can feel otherwise. Oddly, I know several vets who proudly own pugs and frenchies. What's up with that?

    1. In America it's possibly popularity, fashion victims, influence of lifestyle of the rich and famous. The benefits of feeling secure in ones position in society. All outweighing the cons or dissonance, until the perceived reality is just a cute little dog in their minds?

      It's much harder to plead pure ignorance in the case of a vet but also not entirely impossible, after all vets have the same fallibility as any other human, even some extremely surprising ones it seems.

      Cognitive dissonance knows no boundaries. We employ this tactic in often subtle ways in all our daily lives I imagine, we just don't know we are doing it.

  5. Most of my clients show up with their brachy puppy before I've ever had the chance to give my opinion. ANd if they HAD consulted me beforehand, believe me, they would hear and earful.

    1. Geoff, I know it is a problem that owners get the pet first and then expect us to fix it later, when if they had only asked 1st we could have steered them away from trouble. BUT, these owners will almost always get more dogs in the future, so we can educate them so that they may be swayed to not repeat their mistakes

    2. I think educating 'the public" case by case is not going to have the broad affect it should. It's not useless either, sure hang those pictures of foul dentition and suffering dog breeds. I've never seen it in a vet practise. Pretty fish swimming delicately in aquariums, happy literature about dog breeds, tortoises, rabbits and timely reminders how important it is to get the dog vaccinated "annually", yes.

      How do you tell Mrs Hobson-Jones in an impartial manner she bought a fucked up mutant, intentionally deformed puppy that's going to have to have its stenotic nares widened under incredibly risky general anaesthetic ASP? The breeders don't care. I know they don't.

      Vets are obviously going to have to be diplomatic in order not to scare away clients and often in a time of heightened crisis and distress all round, even tragedy. Is there even a good case for vets to be left to do this educating properly? Single handily? What they are presented with are chronically diseased animals that need urgent help, they're trained to treat and refer, but not necessarily treat the clients.

      The time for diplomacy on this issue has past anyway, its not one case a year, just a single eccentric client breeding or keeping deformed dogs, these are incredibly popular breeds. You think you're all done when yet another b-lister proudly presents their hideously deformed little bulldog or Frenchie pup to their adoring little circle of facebook fans...Just look at the stats in the UK alone for registrations!

      Vets can do much much more by showing solidarity with these animals needlessly suffering by informing/educating the public in one go, on mass, in the form of a petition to their countries various kennel clubs, demanding specific breed standard changes. All it takes is a name. In my opinion if they're unwilling they shouldn't be vets.

      A fair amount of organising sure but not in the least overbodig.

      One almost even expects vets to be involved in this already in one way or the other. But are they? Or are they all instead rushing off to mindlessly specialise in soft palate resection, dentition etc!

  6. Certainly I've written to advertisers that use these wretched dogs to promote themselves and their products. Maybe if there was an organised campaign targeting specific usages? If a commercial organisation gets 100,000 letters one day and every paper and media site, the news might get out. Something bad is happening.

    1. A show of public anger by a very significant (hopefully majority) body of UK vets would be very effective. It would reach everyone, the press the public. A petition submitted to the KC is the way to go, so they dramatically change standards and judging practises once and for all.

      Are they willing is the question on everyone's minds and why hasn't that happened yet?

      A simple statement by the British Veterinary Association has proven not enough, not nearly adequate or effective. Dog owners and buyers,the public need to know where vets in the UK stand, their own vets, everyone's vets.

      The idea that "current veterinary medicine is complicit in the practise of maintaining dogs of breeds with inherited defects healthy and suitable for breeding" that they are happy to do so while not even so quietly profiteering from the pain and suffering of purposely bred brachycephalic dogs is absolutely horrendous. It simply cannot be true for the majority of vets in my opinion.

      Or can it be! It's time to make that stand, surely? Surely also long overdue?

      Its a stand I would for one, as a dog owner would be delighted and relieved to see my own vet put their name to, so too would the thousands going through the trauma of ownership of dogs purposely bred to suffer. For those tragic cases (including breeders) that cannot see or comprehend the suffering it will be an urgent, vital and very public wake up call.

      Yes most definitely!

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. The KC are great at token gestures which achieve nothing other than pretend they are tackling the issue. You only have to watch that video from 1980 something where they talk about changing breed standards. Public believe them every time and life continues as normal. The BVA has never really condemned the practices playing the political game and couching disapproval in ambiguity.

    2. Small edit to the above to include "judging practises".

  8. I never coo over these dogs and always advise against a brachy when people ask about buying a new puppy. I have actually moved away from small animal practice as I am fed up of fixing problems considered 'breed standard' that people think are cute. Since when has cruelty been considered cute?! By moving away from the small animal work I know it's avoiding the problem but as a young vet it is really hard to stand up to owners, especially breeders, and say it as it is; I just don't know what else to do. It is embarrassing to be part of a profession which just stands by and doesn't seem to do anything about educating people about the serious welfare implications of being a brachy.

  9. Frankly I'm disgusted with any animal professional who is aware of these problems and refuses to speak up - it's an indictment of their credibility.

    And I'm beyond disgusted with animal breeders, who clearly don't give a tinker's cuss for the welfare of the animals they breed - otherwise they would have given up breeding and left the cat/dog/horse (& goldfish!) fancy a long time ago. They are reprehensible.

  10. I am delighted to report that some brave vets HAVE put their heads above the parapet to start this petition. Please note that it is for veterinary professionals only.

    1. Thanks Jemima and thanks to the vets that have started this.

      I have just sent an email to my vets asking them to support this.

      Jane Howarth, Devon, UK

    2. International working party?

    3. Wow! Pete Wedderburn put his head above the paraphet. Almost 500 signatures already. This is a window of opportunity not to be missed for UK Vets to tag on to the great work in Scandinavia.

      Now that we have a petition going for brachydogs, I think it's high time we get one going for an OBE for Jemima Harrison for her relentless and effective campaigning in canine welfare.

      My concern for JH and all other veterinary professionals working and enduring this field is that they are at high risk of compassion fatigue and burn out with the nonsense that they endure due to human ignorance, poor education and apathy. I really can understand how some veterinary professionals feel that they are banging their head against a brick wall with clients and breeders of these dogs, not to mention the KC....

      We lost Sophia Yin in 2014, due to her finally burning out, despite the amazing progress, compassion and innovation in education she championed. They need our empathy and support.

  11. It doesn't help that pet insurance premiums for brachycephalics don't reflect the high incidence of cosmetic surgery required to correct these defects.

    Last time I checked, it cost me as much to insure a Pug as it did to insure a Whippet. Yes, Whippets get into scrapes, but having a superficial skin wound stapled isn't in the same league as requiring the turbinates to be lasered.

  12. I like this, but there's another side to this: WHO PAYS? Sorry for shouting, but truthfully, many brachycephalic dog owners don't have the means to settle the surgeries and therapies out of pocket -- often, not even short term emergency care, like an eye popping out (far more common than it should be), never mind ongoing treatment.

    I would say that pet insurance is the other big driver of the popularity of these dogs. These are predictably expensive dogs and if their insurance were likewise predictably expensive, it'd give many people serious pause for thought *before* they bought the dog.

    Then again, there are so many basket cases in the world of dogs that once you pool the risk, brachycephalic dogs don't have to cost that much more. But I think that there's a moral case to make to pet insurers that dogs that are structurally predisposed to disease should attract an extra premium. There's no structural reason a golden or flat-coated retriever should be cancer prone, whereas a bulldog has no chance -- it *can't* breathe because of the very way it looks.

  13. Petition happily signed by myself. :)
    It truly is up to the Veterinary professionals of the world to ensure we stop the perpetuation in our clients' minds that brachycephalic conformation based diseases/conditions are NOT "normal", nor should they ever need to be COMMONLY "treated"....this is a blatant slap in the face to our profession...and, more seriously, comes at the cost of our patients health.

  14. The one client that did ask us about her prospective puppy ignored us when we strongly advised that she reconsider getting a French bulldog. The people who own these and other brachycephalics don't believe me when I tell them their pets are struggling to breathe (even as their dogs are making horrendous snorting noises while sitting on the table in the consult room) and get quite cross when I warn them about weight and exercise and potential further problems.

    I feel incredibly frustrated every time another new puppy comes in the door with a squashed face (or stumpy, twisted legs, or a tightly twisted tail, or a large domed head with protruding eyes). When we see one of these conditions in other animals we are horrifed and and call it a deformity, and the animal is often euthanased, but in dogs it's apparently cute?

    It's time for change.

    Laura Henderson BVMS MRCVS

    1. I know a vet who has recently bought a frenchie, what's that about?

  15. In New Zealand the NZKC Accredited Breeders Scheme does require compulsory testing , recommended testing and a to watch for list a for each breed and this is reviewed with International data driving the required tests. French Bulldogs Hip Spine and Patella are mandatory; DNA HC , Eye Cert, DNA Hyperuricosuria optional and B.A.S., DNA CMR are to be aware off. Plus many breeders her are also testing for DM. With the ease of access for DNA testing and good practice the breeders are able to improve the health of their lines over only a few generations without losing breed type. But throw backs will still happen but the percentage will drop. But ist is the unregistered breeders farming for unusual types to get top do Larry ie in the 20000 range, who are breeding very overdone types and are also breeding crosses togeather to well over exagerate expensive breeds feature and clolurs . This is where the many dogs that end up at the vets with huge problems are coming from and these are the ones who should be clamped down on hard bot so much the Kennel Clubs who are trying to get improve our beloved dogs not harm them. PS The picture of the long nosed frenchie is showing clasic breathing of a dog with BAS and the frenchie with the restricted snare is breathing well as evidenced with his mouth being fully closed.

    1. maree saunders you do not know what each dog had been doing before the photos were taken. The photo of the frenchie with the restricted snare looks to of been taken inside, so I would take a guess that the dog was not doing anything strenuous before the photo was took. The frenchie with the long nose photo looks like they are outside and at a guess was taken on a warm day looking at the light and the dog had been running around. I suspect the longer nosed dog does have a degree of restriction, because although longer in the nose it is still short for a dog (It is about the length of a Cavaliers and they suffer terribly with BOAS), but I suspect if we were to examine both dogs, the one with restricted snares would be more restricted when doing exercise or in warm weather.
      You are doing a lot of DNA testing there (No testing for BOAS, I note), but are you actually trying to breed to improve the morphology of the dogs head, so that it can just simply breath easier. Don't you get it. You can health test until the cows come home and you won't improve the problems of being brachy cause until you understand it is breed type (Brachy)that is the health issue.
      Extreme dogs are being shown all the time still and winning, coming from what you think is good breeding practice. DNA testing is not the way forward with the health condition of being brachy, it is you actually looking at your dog and realizing that breeding them with a brachy skull compromises their welfare.

  16. In New Zealand the NZKC Accredited Breeders Scheme has compulsory, optional and to be aware off health tests for all breeds and for French Bulldogs Mandatory Test : Hips, Patella, Hemi- vertibrae; Optional tests: DNA HC, DNA Hyperuricosia adn Eye test; To be aware of BSA and DNA These tests are slected and are reviewed and updated according to International vet data on each breed. Many a registered breeders are also testing for DM and this possiblybshould be added. The DNA testing available and good breeding practice ie doing all the test mandatory or not, allow a breeder to improve the health of their breeds lines within a few generations without losing breed type. Ofmcouse there will be trow back of type but tas they go forward the percentage of this happening will reduce. It is the unregistered breeders/puppy farmers who are breeding for unique dogs they can sell for extreme pricing well above the registered breeders are asking, that crossed breeds to exaggerate features and breed for very overdone or unusually small type and rare colurs etc. These and the puppy farmers who are the ones that do the most damage to breeds and where most of the puppies that end up at vets with huge health problems are coming from. PS The photo of the long nosed French bulldog show classic breathing of a dog with BAS where as the French Bulldog with the pinched snares is breathing normally as evidenced by his fully closed mouth.

    1. It is the show ring that has done the most to propagate dogs to be bred brachy, don't try loading this all off on those irresponsible puppy farmers, who are only cashing in on what the showring starts. At least they are a bit more honest selling them as a gimmick and overdone dogs. You try to make people think that doing a few DNA tests gives a higher chance of a healthier dog when being brachy, which is a fallacy.

    2. Because a dog with pinched snares has their mouth closed in one still photo moment is not an indication that they have not got a restricted airway or that they are breathing normally. Your comment about the photos though shows quite vividly what vets are up against.

    3. Yes it's difficult swallowing with your mouth open isn't. So at some stage even if you have no nose at all you're still going to have to close your mouth for a few seconds. Even to take a rest from the difficulty breathing itself for a few seconds. Sometimes if your extremely relaxed and lucky enough, maybe even lightly sedated, just enough air can pass in and out to allow the semblance of normality. But the minute you need to function, as a busy little happy dog and you have to rely in your nose for this function its tickets again. Imagine living like that!

      Same old same old. All the heath tests and DNA tests in the world do not breed better dogs when the type is causing the biggest problem in the first place and winning in the show ring.

      This is a typical case of the cognitive dissonance involved.

      Maree Saunders believes the Frenchie can breath because the picture shows it with a closed mouth, and yet it has very obvious stenotic nares, that means no nostrils! She can see that, we can all see it has no nostrils. However because its correct in type for the show ring it's correct to her eyes. It might have been the product of any number of health tests and DNA tests, it might even itself have had all the tests in the world but the problem is it still has no nose or nostrils to breath through!

      I don't know what kind of endurance tests they are put through in new Zealand (if any) but this little doggie will highly likely collapse with heat stroke, indoors, with aircon running for even ten minutes flat on a treadmill. Given normal indoor ambient temps maybe sooner.

      In show breeding its the worst, but does extends into all areas of breeding, though you're less likely to get it in some hobby breeders because they care and even in puppy mills because they don't care enough about exaggerated phenotype.

      I know a show Frenchie that was a best bitch in America that got its toe caught in the wire floor of its crate in an airconed room, with giant fans twirling overhead, water irrigated roof cooling system and it still died, dropped dead from heat exhaustion. It simply overheated because it couldn't breath properly. Its a fact this model of a dog is a wreck and a chronic welfare issue because of the way it is breed to look. Completely outside of inbred health defects and related diseases and conditions.

  17. The AKC standard for the Bulldog is ridiculous. The following is my interpretation of the standard:
    General appearance: The Bulldog is a proud and brachycephalic dog. The overall structure of the Bulldog should convey a dog of hardship and despair.
    Head: The head should be gargantuan. The gargantuan head should be gargantuan enough that it cannot fit through its mother's tiny birth canal.
    Nose: Ideally, the Bulldog should not have a nose but let's get real the Bulldog needs some mechanism for breathing. The nose should be extremely short and make snorting sounds that should enhance the Bulldog's cuteness.
    Sex: The Bulldog should not be able to engage in any normal canine sexual behavior. When the Bulldog is deemed ready to breed, multiple players (e.g. veterinarian, reproductive specialist, sire's pimp, teaser bitch, etc.) should be involved in the artificial insemination process.
    a nose that is elongated to where it could be recognized as a nose
    any type of athletic build