Paragon or victim? Thor the bulldog’s win in national dog show focuses spotlight on suffering of flat-faced dogs
On Thanksgiving Day, with an estimated 20 million viewers watching, Thor the bulldog was handpicked from a crowded field of 196 breeds and crowned Best in Show at the 2019 National Dog Show.
“With his adorable waddle and Winston Churchill looks, the dog won over the judges and the fans,” the Washington Post gushed. “Thor won today because of his structure and because he moves so well,” People magazine wrote, quoting Thor’s handler, Eduardo Paris.
There is no denying that Thor is a lovable dog, but what we also know is that his jowly, stocky look – the one that made him a national darling overnight — comes at a heavy price to him just as it does to other brachycephalic breeds. These include pugs, boxers and shih tzus, who struggle their entire lives with respiratory and other problems because of their flat faces and other mutations caused by selective breeding for appearance.
“Knowing that flat, babylike faces are more appealing to potential buyers, breeders have selectively bred the nose out of these dogs to make them cuter,” says Dr. Barry Kipperman, board president of our affiliate, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, which recently opened up a new front against this tragic trend of breeding flat-faced dogs with the release of its Cost of Cuteness campaign. The consequence of selective breeding, Dr. Kipperman adds, is that “these dogs now are becoming less and less healthy, and less and less able to function and breathe properly.”
All that snorting, snuffling and constant panting that bulldogs like Thor are known for results from their attempt to move air through nostrils that are too small, a throat that is too crowded and a windpipe that is often no bigger than a straw. As a result of these respiratory problems, bulldogs have an average lifespan of only eight years.
What further complicates matters is that bulldogs and other brachycephalic breeds are prone to heat stroke and have bulging eyes that lead to ulcers and other eye abnormalities. They also suffer from folded skin that can be prone to infection and, in some cases, even have to have surgery to give birth.
This is something that we’ve worked on for a long while at the Humane Society of the United States, as well. In 2011, we sponsored an international conference, “The Purebred Paradox,” which focused on the full range of issues associated with selective breeding that produces chronic malformation in dog breeds. The conference brought together veterinarians, responsible breeders and animal advocates to discuss the need for reform.
Ironically, even as we ‘ve learned more about the suffering these animals endure because of selective breeding, their popularity has soared. In 2017, the American Kennel Club listed two brachycephalic breeds (French bulldogs and bulldogs) in its top 10 most popular breeds, and eight brachycephalic breeds (French bulldogs, bulldogs, boxers, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, shih tzus, Boston terriers, mastiffs and pugs) in the top 31 most popular breeds. The numbers of AKC-registered bulldogs and French bulldogs increased by 69% and 476%, respectively, from 2006-2016.
Not coincidentally, the puppy mill trade has cashed in on the popularity of these breeds by mass-producing them for sale in pet stores and over the Internet, leading to thousands of flat-faced puppies being trucked or flown across the country in dangerous conditions. Instead of warning the public about purchasing these dogs, the AKC frequently rubber-stamps pet store sales of flat-faced dogs. In fact the AKC has partnered with Petland, the largest puppy-selling pet store chain in the United States, posting prominent signage in many of their stores. The AKC also regularly fights laws that would crack down on puppy mills, poor breeding practices and problem pet stores.
Through the Cost of Cuteness campaign, HSVMA is intensifying its efforts to educate veterinarians, clients and breed clubs about the problems that plague brachycephalic breeds by:
- developing resources to help veterinarians educate their clients both before and after the purchase of a brachycephalic breed so that they are better prepared to make an appropriate decision about a new dog and to deal with the negative health consequences if they bring home a brachycephalic dog. These include a fact sheet and an educational webinar.
- trying to drive home the recognition that respiratory sounds such as snorting and snoring are not normal, but rather are clinical signs of airway obstruction and compromised breathing, and that obesity in brachycephalic dogs can worsen respiratory symptoms.
- urging individual breed clubs as well as the AKC to work with veterinarians to develop and implement plans to improve the health of dogs with brachycephalic conformation.
- calling on major retailers and organizations that use brachycephalic breeds in their advertising to feature healthier breeds or mixed-breed dogs instead.
We hope Thor is lucky enough to avoid all of the maladies afflicting his breed. But we know that many bulldogs and other flat-faced dogs won’t. That’s why the national spotlight now focused on bulldogs is not so much an opportunity to celebrate Thor as a paragon of his breed, but rather to acknowledge the suffering brachycephalic dogs endure for cosmetic reasons. As Dr. Kipperman points out, given the popularity of these breeds, things are only going to get worse unless we take steps to address the malformation that selective breeding has wrought.
Actually there is a surgical procedure that can alleviate the breathing problems. Only a specialist should perform this procedure.