Recent heatwaves across the U.S. and Canada have proven to be deadly for people and animals. And just a few weeks before these fatal heatwaves, the Westminster Dog Show declared Wasabi, a Pekingese, winner of its “best in show” award at its 145th annual competition in New York. While there was significant media attention paid to the 3-year-old dog’s unusual name and floor-length coat, there has been little mention of the fact that the Pekinese is a brachycephalic (flat-faced) dog breed. These breeds of dogs, which also include bulldogs and pugs, are especially intolerant of heat. They also suffer from lifelong breathing problems and other health-related concerns that can cause heartache and expensive veterinary bills for their families. It’s unfortunate that Wasabi’s fame has not prompted more earnest discussion about how overbreeding puts dogs at risk.
What are brachycephalic breeds?
Brachycephalic dog breeds have shortened snouts and wide, short skulls. These dogs have been selectively bred over the generations to accentuate their flat-faced features, as is the case with Wasabi, who appears to have an almost completely flat snout.
Many consider these flat-faced traits endearing for their babylike appearance. However, the structure of these dogs’ bodies means that they are at risk for numerous serious health problems, such as chronic skin and eye diseases and, most significantly, respiratory problems. This latter issue—known as brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome—impairs quality of life, frequently requires expensive surgeries, and can substantially shorten the lifespan of individual dogs. Respiratory issues also mean that flat-faced dogs are more imperiled during air travel than other types of dogs.
In addition to Pekingese, other brachycephalic breeds include the French bulldog (the second most popular dog in the U.S.), as well as English bulldogs, boxers, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, shih tzus, Boston terriers, mastiffs and pugs.
Consumer demand for these dogs and the unhealthy breed standards that now prevail contribute directly to the misery of animals in America’s puppy mills, where puppies are churned out from exhausted mother dogs in dismal conditions, causing immense suffering. During our Petland investigations, we found breeds like French and English bulldogs shipped to stores during stifling hot weather, and frequently suffering from respiratory problems. Those who survived were sold for thousands of dollars to unsuspecting families, with no warning or discussion regarding their specific needs.
Advice from our experts
The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association has a “Cost of Cuteness” campaign that seeks to raise awareness about the dangers of this kind of dog breeding. This campaign encourages veterinarians and animal protection groups to collaborate with breeders and breed clubs to work on improving the health of these dogs and undoing the damage that has been done by breeding for exaggerated characteristics over the past couple of generations.
Dr. Barry Kipperman, board chair of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, highlighted why a Pekinese winning the Westminster dog show represents a step backward: “Wasabi’s win might translate into more popularity for this breed when we should really be focusing on the need to address the selective breeding that has created these flat-faced appearances and significantly compromised brachycephalic dogs’ health and welfare.” The win will also encourage puppy mills to churn out the breed to meet public demand, with little or no attention to the dogs’ health or individual needs.
Understanding the risks of these types of breeds is for the sake of both the dogs and the people who care about them: “Dog lovers need to be aware of these risks, including the potentially high medical bills and the heartache of watching their companion suffer, if they acquire one of these breeds,” Kipperman explained, “and we, as veterinary professionals and animal welfare advocates, need to collectively work together to address this growing yet relatively unknown welfare problem.”
How dog lovers and animal advocates can help
Some ways that dog lovers and animal advocates can help include:
- Share information about the brachycephalic issue with family, friends and other animal advocates. Many people find the brachycephalic breeds appealing but are unaware of the health risks for the dogs and the emotional and financial problems prospective adopters may face if they acquire one.
- If you already have a brachycephalic breed, make sure to talk to your veterinarian about the health risks and how to keep your dog as healthy as possible, including ensuring your dog maintains a healthy weight, proactively addressing skin, eye and other health problems and minimizing exposure to hot and humid weather conditions.
- Avoid traveling with a flat-faced breed during the summer months, especially by air, and never purchase any puppy online; every year, flat-faced dogs die during air transport, especially when puppy mills ship them in large numbers as cargo.
- Encourage breeders and breed clubs to help on this issue, including breeding dogs with longer snouts and not breeding any dogs that exhibit brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome or other genetic health problems.
- If you’re set on getting a brachycephalic breed, consider adopting from a breed rescue group or shelter. Some brachycephalic dogs end up in rescues or at animal shelters because unsuspecting owners were unable to shoulder the costs or commitment of caring for these dogs as they may have already exhibited health problems. Be sure to ask about the animal’s medical history if you go this route. You can also use this Humane Society of the United States resource to help identify a responsible breeder for brachycephalics or any dog breed.
How to protect pets from heat and humidity
Brachycephalic dogs are particularly susceptible to heat and humidity but, just like people, all companion animals are at risk when temperatures start to rise. Given the extreme weather that much of the U.S. has been facing in recent weeks, pet owners need to take precautions to protect their animal companions. Check out these basic safety tips for pets that apply during the summer or any time your community is experiencing rising temperatures.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.