A rise in the number of people looking to buy bulldog puppies and other ‘short nosed’ dogs has raised concerns about the health risks associated with those breeds.
Known for their wide skulls and squashed noses, they often struggle to breath, which can lead to sleep deprivation, oesophageal issues, and heat-related problems which can sometimes cause them to have a short life.
British bulldogs were our fourth most popular breed in 2015 and 2016, with French bulldogs the sixth most common.
The New Zealand Kennel Club, about to be renamed Dogs New Zealand, has set up a working group to look at what owners and breeders need to know and to discuss scientific advances in the field.
New Zealand Kennel Club veterinarian health welfare officer Becky Murphy told Kathryn Ryan science is slowly catching up with the 'brachiocephalic' health concerns affecting these breeds.
“Until very recently it’s been very difficult to actually properly diagnose these issues."
Studies suggest the rise in the breeds’ popularity is due to people finding their infant-like features appealing, as well as their popularity with celebrities, she says.
But she notes not every dog with a short face has health problems.
“It’s certainly a spectrum; some dogs are several affected, some dogs are mildly affected and some dogs are absolutely fine and live quite normal lives.”
Unlike some health issues affecting dogs, such as blindness, brachiocephalic is not a simple condition to determine before making breeding decisions.
“Currently breeders can only choose not to breed from dogs that may have health concerns.
“And that is the NZ kennel club’s position: do not breed from dogs that are affected by a brachiocephalic condition, or obstructed airwave condition.”
“So it really is just looking at that dog, knowing the history.”
She says recent work done by the University of Cambridge has developed an objective measure of the breathing issues.
“All they do is sit inside a sealed chamber with air flow constantly pumped through and you’re looking at the airway movement of these dogs and there seems to be very good correlations, so we’re watching it with very keen interest.”
The unit’s being brought up with universities around the world and Murphy says there’s going to be one in Australia soon.
But she says they’re very expensive so they’ll be looking at raising more funds to get one in New Zealand to help identify which dogs are affected and what effect that has on their breeding ability.
“We need to look at this more because we can’t be having knee-jerk reactions.
“We can’t be coming in and saying ‘we can’t breed from these dogs’ because what can happen in that case is we severely reduce our gene pool and we could have the potential to end up with even more problems than we started with.”
Murphy says the breeds in question command a high price tag compared with other pure bred dogs.
“So we are seeing a fair bit of indiscriminate breeding… breeding by people with no real purpose apart from producing puppies to sell for quite a lot of money.”
She says that’s not necessarily a problem, but it can be when there’s no research into the dog, nor the health aspects of the breeding pair that you’re putting together.
The New Zealand Kennel club has expectations of their breeders, including limits on the number of litters they can have, the age of the breeding female and an expectation that they will conduct any relevant health tests if a problem arises with a puppy.
“We will mediatise between the breeder and the puppy buyer to make sure there’s a positive outcome for all involved.
But she says there are lots of bulldogs that are for sale that aren’t pure bred.
“They’re buying the dog online without seeing the parent, without knowing the breeder, without knowing the person or any tests that they’ve done, because they’re buying on a whim.
It’s important that people do their research before buying a puppy, she says.
“I get a lot of calls from people who say ‘I’ve brought a pure bred dog, I’ve got a problem and the breeder doesn’t want to know about it’, and of course they’re not one of our members so there’s nothing I can do to help.”
Murphy says one of the best things that owners of short nosed dogs can do is make sure they don’t put on excess weight.
“There’s a really high correlation between obesity and the severity of brachiocephalic airwave syndrome. The less weight that they have the less strain on their bodies so they can breathe a lot easier.”
She also recommends keeping them cool in warmer weather and avoiding taking them for long walks or runs.