Brachycephalic tipping point: time to push the button?

As a lay person, it's easy to see why the campaign team for Comic Relief chose Albert. He's cute and looks as though he's enjoying himself.

He's also bang on trend. Flat-faced or brachycephalic breeds have seen an exponential rise in their popularity (see graph on p 289) particularly bulldogs, French bulldogs and pugs. The Kennel Club recently reported that French bulldogs are set to overtake the Labrador retriever as the UK's most popular breed by next year.

Vets in small animal practices across the country know the reality of these breeds only too well. Many are plagued by health problems and are regular visitors to their surgeries.

As brachycephaly expert Rowena Packer says, not only are these dogs highly predisposed to breathing problems, flat-faced breeds have become associated with a suite of eye problems, skin diseases, a screw-shaped tail that is linked to painful spine abnormalities, neurological problems and an inability to give birth without surgical intervention.

As the popularity of the breeds has risen, so too has concern about their health problems. The BVA has been leading a drive to see more responsible breeding of brachycephalic dogs. They should not be seen as cute or desirable, the association has argued, but rather as dogs predisposed to a lifetime of poor health.

Even flat-faced dogs chosen for advertising campaigns can be unhealthy. In Albert's case, for example, his nostrils are severely stenotic indicating that breathing is likely to be a struggle.

That is why BVA president Gudrun Ravetz wrote to Comic Relief about Albert: ‘Whilst many people perceive the squashed wrinkly faces of these breeds as appealing, in reality dogs with short muzzles can struggle to breathe. Albert is a particularly poor example of this as his nose is so short he may have difficulty breathing even when doing day-to-day activities such as walking or eating.’

It is this use of unhealthy dogs in advertising that the BVA rightly takes issue with. Since last year, it has been writing to companies and encouraging brands not to use images of any unhealthy dogs in advertising. It is currently working on a wider policy on the use of animals in advertising, which will take into account characteristics, behaviours and appropriate context.

Today we will reinforce that commitment. From now on, Veterinary Record and its sister titles (In PracticeVeterinary Record Case Reports and Veterinary Record Open) will no longer accept adverts that use images of, bulldogs, French bulldogs or pugs to promote non-breed specific products.

Images will be used in our clinical reports, and in our editorial pages for the purposes of education and information – to illustrate health problems. And adverts that promote products or services aimed at these breeds specifically will be allowed. But in general, adverts promoting general vet products and services will no longer feature these breeds.

Why have we taken this position? You might quite reasonably challenge this decision by saying there are more brachycephalic dog breeds. Indeed there are other pedigree dog – and cat – breeds that are prone to health problems so why just stick with these three flat-nosed dogs?

Here's the thinking. First, physical deformities in these brachycephalic dogs are more obvious. Unlike health problems associated with extreme breeding in many other dogs, lay people can identify extreme examples of these breeds because they can physically see any deformity.

Second, demand is encouraging extreme breeding and irresponsible supply chains. We have therefore selected the most popular brachycephalic breeds. It is hoped that cutting use of their images in promotional materials will go some way to reducing demand.

Third, these breeds often have real problems breathing – hence they are often known as extreme brachycephalics. Research undertaken by Cambridge University's veterinary medicine department compared prevalence of brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) in dogs. This found no prevalence of the disease in a control group, but it stood at 40 per cent in bulldogs, 46 per cent in French bulldogs and 60 per cent in pugs. Other research backs up the view that these three breeds are the brachycephalic breeds most likely to be affected by BOAS.

We hope that by taking this stand, we can encourage advertisers to select images of healthy animals for any forthcoming advertising campaigns.

Of course, healthy versions of these breeds do exist. So why go all-out for a ban, when we could just encourage images of healthy brachycephalic dogs? The answer to this is a pragmatic one – it's very difficult for advertisers to tell the difference between a healthy bulldog and one that isn't, so it's just easier to ban all images of the breed.

There is support from veterinary experts – and from industry – for an advertising ban. It's not about banning the dogs, it's about reducing demand for these breeds, they argue.

We know there is a bigger piece of work to be done here – the veterinary profession needs to agree some comprehensive guidelines for advertisers that will cover all breeds associated with extreme breeding.

The Kennel Club has recently formed a working group made up of members of the veterinary community, researchers, other welfare organisations and breed experts with the hope that it will support a collaborative approach towards improving the health of brachycephalic dogs.

But in the meantime, let's make a start. Let pugs, bulldogs and French bulldogs be our symbols for change, symbols of a bigger problem that we are committed to tackling.

It would be great to involve industry. If there are any commercial teams reading this who would like to get involved in shaping this agenda, please do get in touch. You are an important voice in this change process.

My sense is that we are on the cusp of change, at a tipping point with this issue. Let's push the button.