Friday 29 May 2020

Dutch ban short-nosed dogs: breeders fear others could follow


The story broke last week that the Netherlands had banned the breeding of Bulldogs and other short-faced breeds (and crossbreeds), prompting outrage from some dog-lovers - and a standing ovation from others.

To many in the show-world, the news seems to have come as a massive shock. New Facebook groups and petitions have sprung up overnight in the hope of preventing a slippery-slope spread to other countries. Dozens of international breed clubs have issued statements of condemnation and on Wednesday, the FCI (the umbrella group for many overseas kennel clubs) held an emergency webinar  (a separate blog to come on that).

In fact, the president of the FCI, Dr Tamás Jakkel, has even gone so far as to write an extraordinary open letter charging the Dutch KC (Raad van Baheer) with negligence in letting the Dutch Government implement the new legislation. (Read Dr Jakkel's letter here.)

Last week, the Pug Breed Council in the UK accused the Dutch KC of “being happy to see the demise of historic breeds that have existed for hundreds of years." The Dutch government's decision, it says, is "beyond our comprehension."

In reality, it has been a very long time in coming. And the 'ban' is both not a ban - and it's not new. 

Legislation introduced in the Netherlands in 2014 forbids the breeding of pet animals "in a way that harms the welfare and health of the parent animal or the offspring." It spells out that breeding should prevent, as far as possible, serious hereditary disorders/diseases or welfare-impacting conformation being passed on to offspring.

The hope was that it would be enough to encourage breeders to make changes, And, indeed, in 2015, the Dutch Kennel Club became the first in the world to mandate a 1km walking test for Bulldogs before they could be bred.

Not much changed, though - and certainly not in terms of breeder willingness to change the look of their dogs. The legislation proved to be too vague to be of much to those wanting to bring prosecutions against breeders producing dogs that contravened the law.

Faced with continuing high-profile media attention on the plight of brachycephalics, the Dutch government commissioned a report from the University of Utrecht entitled "Breeding Short-Muzzled Dogs" which was published in January 2019.   It provided the basis for six new breeding criteria that Carola Schouten, Minister for Agriculture, introduced in March 2019.

Click to expand

These cover eye conformation, nostril stenosis, abnormal breathing, excess skin folds and - most controversially -  that all dogs bred in the Netherlands (crossbreeds as well as purebred) must have muzzles at least one third the length of their head (and, in time, half the length of their head).

As you might imagine, it was met with uproar - other than from one Pug club, Commedia, which advised its members to stop breeding and announced it would be willing to consider outcrossing in order to meet the new criteria. (A stance that was subsequently overturned by the members who ousted the Club officers who wanted to take this route.)

However, the Dutch KC itself broadly welcomed the new criteria - with the exception of the muzzle-length rule. In August 2019, along with its brachycephalic breed clubs, the Dutch KC submitted a counter proposal in the hope of overturning it. It failed - although it has won a last-minute concession that allows, in the short-term, for one parent to have a shorter muzzle if other criteria (which includes an exercise test) are met.

Last week the Club announced that it will no longer issue full pedigree certificates to the following ‘extreme’ brachycephalic (short-faced) breeds - unless the parents have passed an independent vet-check confirming that at least one of them has a muzzle the required length. 

Boston Terrier
French Bulldog
Griffon Belge
Griffon Bruxellois
Japanese Chin
King Charles Spaniel
Petit Brabancon
Shih Tzu

As there are very few of the above that meet this criteria, die-hard Dutch brachy breeders are seeing it as the end of the road.  

The Dutch KC says it has plans for a separate registry where dogs that don't meet the criteria can continue to be recorded/tracked - but they won't be accepted on to the stud book and they cannot be shown. 

The Dutch KC also says it is hopes to set up a separate registry for outcrosses bred to to bring in eg a longer nose from another breed (something that has been done in Germany with the retro-pug; although not in a way that's been embraced by the German KC).   The hope is that descendants of these dogs might, down the line, be considered acceptable enough to incorporate back into the stud book.

This has prompted horrified calls of "mongrelisation" from some breeders. 

"The head is one of the hallmarks of the breed and its change in this manner will cause the breed's essence to be eliminated," wrote the French Bulldog Clubs of America and Canada in a statement last week. "This mandate will significantly change the head shape, ratio of muzzle to skull, and the dentition."

I confess I am infuriated by the dentition reference. We know that French Bulldogs and other brachcyephalics have awful teeth - the result of squishing the normal number of canine teeth into a much smaller jaw. Veterinary dentist Dr Fraser Hale maintains he has never, in a 30-yr career, seen an entirely normal brachycephalic mouth. The teeth are always crowded/rotated. A longer muzzle should help normalise this, if not completely resolve the problem.

GSD v Pug

The Dutch KC now finds itself at the centre of an international dog fight, with many breeders blaming it for what's happened. Many are also furious that the Club agrees with the legislators that at least some change is necessary.

"As a Kennel Club, we have repeatedly urged the breed clubs of extremely short-muzzled breeds to include additional health measures in their breeding policies," says a spokesperson. "At that time there was no will to adapt, at least not enough."

The Dutch KC is also frustrated by the deflection by many breeders to "lookalikes" (ie puppy mill/BYB-bred dogs). It knows that this argument doesn't wash with legislators when the scientific literature links the problems to the phenotype not the provenance of these dogs. Sure, "responsible" breeders are the most likely to health-test and their dogs may be pampered - but they are also often the ones breeding the dogs with the flattest faces because that is what wins in the show-ring. 

In fact, the most cursory of Google searches proves that many brachyephalic dogs have become more extreme over the years, not less, and that it is the show-ring that has driven much of this exaggeration.

"If we look at some old photos of these breeds from the last century, which is not that long ago, should we not ask ourselves who we are to say that this is the only correct type? " asks the Dutch KC. "How would breeders at the time react to the breeds as they are today?"

In response to the the FCI's claim that the Dutch legislation is an attack on breeds that should be considered "national heritages" the Dutch KC suggests: "So let us take a good look at the books and the available photo material from that time and use these photos as a standard. If we showed these photos to the public in the street from about 60 years ago and now, which would be their favourite?"

It's a good question. And yet if you point out to breeders that Pugs looked like this 150 years ago...

 1878-80 Minnie + Sally from The Royal Collection

Or that Bulldogs used to look like this...

Donald - the first Bulldog to be shown i America
... they'll tell you that these examples were mongrels or can otherwise be discounted.

I'm not often in the habit of defending kennel clubs and I can understand why some believe the Dutch KC could have done more. But I don't think the international dog 'fancy' fully understands the strength of public opinion in the Netherlands - and indeed in other countries where brachycephalic health has continued to be highlighted by scientists, animal welfarists and the media. 

Bottom line, the Dutch KC's hands are now tied. It can no longer continue to sanction illegal breeding any more than the UK Kennel Club could register breeds such as the Japanese Tosa that are banned by law in the UK. 

Of course now the fear among breeders is that other countries, emboldened by the Dutch move, might follow suit.  In fact, I would be very surprised if we saw a  ban in the UK any time soon and, let's face it, the USA is the breeding wild-west where any attempts at control is considered an infringement of constitutional rights. But there are certainly some murmurings in Finland, Norway, Germany and Austria.

No one should be surprised.

It is now over 70 years since the first surgeries were done to correct airway abnormalities in these breeds. Today, much of the workload of thousands of vets worldwide is taken up trying to fix both their breathing and a myriad of other issues in these dogs. 

I am genuinely horrified by some of the patients that walk into my clinic,” says veterinarian Dr Gert ter Haar who contributed to the report commissioned by the Dutch Government and until recently ran the Brachycephalic Clinic at the Royal Veterinary College. “I don’t know where to start to try and make them feel better.”

We now know that brachycephaly confers a host of pathologies on these dogs. Hundreds die from heatstroke every year because their anatomy impairs their ability to thermoregulate; they have the same number of teeth as a Labrador squished into a third or less of the space; a foreshortened skull which can cause the brain to rotate; eyes liable to damage by the lack of a muzzle to act as a buffer; painful ear problems, gastro-intestinal issues, difficulties mating and giving birth, compromised genetic diversity and a reduced lifespan - particularly for the French Bulldog and Bulldog (5-8yrs old depending on which data/studies you look at).

Dr ter Haar says he is “thrilled” by the Dutch Government’s decision. “The only reason breeders have bred towards a shorter and shorter nose/face is that they look very cute and more childlike. Have we become so superficial that the look of our dogs is more important than their welfare? In my opinion this gives us a way, finally, to stop breeders who do not have the welfare of the dogs they breed at the top of their priority list.”

Others believe a ban is a mistake, pointing out that simple solutions for complex problems can have unintended consequences. 

“Unfortunately, I'm not sure that we have enough evidence to say that increasing the length of the nose alone will make the difference that they are hoping for,” says Dr Jane Ladlow, a brachycephalic specialist who is is one of only a few in the world doing advanced surgery on these dogs. Dr Ladlow, believes that the right approach is to work with, rather than against breeders. Along with colleagues at Cambridge University she was instrumental in the setting up of the UK Kennel Club's new respiratory grading scheme.

“I'm concerned that the ban will stop reputable breeders who are concerned about health but won't stop puppy farms as imports from other countries are still allowable. There is obviously considerable demand for these breeds because of their personalities and popularity on social media.”

Dr Ladlow also points to the Cambridge research which found factors such as head-width and neck girth may be more significant than muzzle length. She is adamant that there are healthy dogs out there.

Indeed, the Cambridge research found that around half of Bulldogs, Frenchies and Pugs had no significant breathing issues. But that leaves 50% who do. And, again, hardly a week goes by without a new paper identifying yet another problem. Two weeks ago, a Finnish study of ostensibly healthy Bulldogs found that that almost all had problematic joint issues (blog post to come).

Dr Rowena Packer, author of several key scientific papers exploring the impact of brachycephaly on dogs, broadly supports the Dutch move: “Many millions of dogs with longer muzzles already enjoy the freedom to breathe, see, walk and play freely, with no need for invasive surgeries or laborious daily husbandry to achieve this.

“Although ‘banning’ may not be an optimal solution for many parties, given the lack of success seen with other breed bans, the Netherlands are sending a clear message to dog breeders that this issue simply must be taken seriously.”

I'm not that keen on bans either. But I welcome the Dutch move. Not enough has been done to address these dogs' problems and breeders continue to resist even minor tweaks to their breed standards.

Hopefully, with the threat of legislation hanging over their heads, and with those arguing for reform clearly not going away, we will see more progress.

As ever, the dogs deserve better.