Helping dogs that can't breathe due to flat faces
Earlier in the year, I wrote about the breathing difficulties faced by Pugs and other flat-faced breeds of dog. One recent study found that around 80% of these dogs suffer from some degree of continually difficult breathing. Since my article, I've been involved in a campaign to make practical changes to improve the welfare of these unfortunate animals. Veterinary Ireland, the group that represents Irish vets, has committed to a goal that, within a decade, all Pugs should be able to breathe without needing surgery. Last month, I travelled to the UK, where I attended a scientific meeting for an update on the research into the problem. After that meeting, I was asked to help to draw up a list to specify what vets, as a profession, might be able to do to improve the situation.
There are two groups that need help. First, the Pugs that have already been born: these need to be kept as comfortable as possible. And second, the much bigger group of Pugs that remain to be born: what can we do to ensure that healthier Pugs are born in the future.
For the individual dogs who already exist, the most important task for vets is to ensure that owners are aware of what can go wrong. They should learn the signs of discomfort. Vets need to take time to tell them that when their dog snuffles and snorts, it isn't cute: it's a sign of distress. We need to advise owners take particular care to ensure that their dogs are not over-stressed when exercising or when in a warm place, so that their breathing is not put under too much pressure. We need to advise about the huge importance of keeping short-nosed dogs slim: when they're overweight or obese, their breathing is put under even more pressure. And we need to let them know that if their dog does often struggle to breathe, they can be helped by surgery.
What about helping the short-nosed dogs of the future who have yet to be born? One colleague told me that the only answer was for certain breeds to be banned, but this isn't realistic. Can you imagine people being fined or going to jail because they were trying to sell Pug pups? I would suggest, however, that it may be realistic for breeders of dogs that predictably develop severe health issues to be prosecuted for cruelty to animals under the Animal Health and Welfare Act. With compulsory microchipping, it's now easy to identify the breeder of a puppy, and they could easily be held accountable. Vets - with the permission of the dogs' owners - could report severely affected dogs to a central authority who could then take action against the breeder. This would not be popular - nobody likes the idea of reporting others to the authorties - but if we are serious about preventing suffering in dogs, it's something that should be considered.
What else can vets do to encourage the breeding of healthier dogs? There are three areas where we can take action.
First, we can influence public opinion about these breeds. Dog breed choice is more linked to fashion than any other factor. If vets can help to spread the word about the difficulty breathing that causes many of these dogs to suffer, over time, they should gradually become less popular. Vets could focus more on people planning to buy a dog, with open evenings for potential dog owners, and the publication of a veterinary guide to the top twenty most popular breeds/crossbreeds (e.g. "Thinking of buying a dog?").
Second, vets, as a group, can put pressure on the Kennel Club take action. This should include modifying the Breed Standard for the most severely affected breeds. We know from the scientists that there are key aspects of the shape of these dogs that make them prone to obstructed breathing. In particular, there is an index that can be used: the Cranio Facial Ratio. This is the figure produced by dividing the length of the muzzle by the distance from the bridge of the nose to the back of the skull. Studies have shown that this can be used as a yardstick to predict the likelihood of difficulty breathing. So if the breed clubs dedicated to short nosed dogs agree that they will not accept registration of dogs with an unhealthy Cranio Facial Ratio, the most severely affected dogs will no longer be desirable, and breeders will stop producing them. Vets can also put pressure on the bodies that show dogs to insist that prize winning dogs should undergo some sort of exercise tolerance test before winning the top accolades. It's easy to get a dog to trot up and down for a few minutes, and if a dog cannot do this because of difficulty breathing, then they should not be given a prize. Vets can be the objective people to carry out this test. If the top dogs are healthier individuals, there will be a trickle down effect, with people aspiring to have healthier dogs that resemble these prize winning dogs.
Third, vets can work with other campaigners to stop unhealthy flat faced dogs being used so widely in advertising campaigns. A Facebook group (CRUFFA - Campaign for Responsible Use of Flat Faced Animals) has been set up for this purpose, and vets should support this type of initiative. For their own good, Pugs and Bulldogs could do with being less popular, and we all need to work together to achieve that.