Dr. Brenda Bonnet
Photo courtesy of Dr. Brenda Bonnett
Dr. Brenda Bonnett, shown with Smilla, advocates educating pet owners to value health over looks when choosing their animal companions.
As chief executive of the International Partnership for Dogs, an organization with a mission to enhance canine health and welfare, I read with interest the article "Calls for bans on breeding short-nosed dogs gain momentum" published last month by the VIN News Service. The IPFD has been creating resources on the brachycephalic issue for many years, on many fronts.
I recognize that the article was intended to have a limited scope, but my concern is that we are missing the big picture. To see it, we need to consider the bonds between millions of "brachys" and their owners, the influence of the pet industry promoting these dogs, how veterinarians have played a role in normalizing them, and the consequences of banning these breeds, if that were even possible.
Advocates of breed bans, which are mainly an emotional response, seek a simple solution to a very complex problem. Many stakeholders have responsibilities on both sides of this question, and narrow fixes are not going to work without severe unintended consequences, such as angering owners and eliminating responsible breeders.
I absolutely agree with Dr. Emma Goodman Milne, founder of Vets Against Brachycephalism, that "we need veterinarians to stand up and say, 'These animals are suffering.' " But how is change, practically, accomplished?
The ethical challenges, conflicts of interest and responsibility of veterinarians to these dogs should be clear to all. However, in discussion with veterinarians on the front line, I hear their concerns: How do you approach this problem when up to half the dogs you see (the estimate of one British veterinarian) are brachys — and when owners are so attached?
The trend toward extremes in conformation, or body shape and structure, started in the Victorian era, and concerns were raised by welfare advocates about brachycephalics — especially bulldogs — in the early 1900s. Fast forward to the 1960s, and veterinarians were raising the alarm about BOAS — Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome, a condition that causes breathing problems due to disproportionate facial features.
It also was recognized decades ago that problems in brachycephalic breeds encompassed much more than breathing, given that their conformation affected their spines, digestive tracts and other parts of their anatomy. However, veterinary groups focused more on other issues of extreme conformation, such as hip dysplasia, that affected the popular breeds of the day (German shepherds, Labrador retrievers) because the brachys were relatively uncommon. Leap to the 2000s, and it is a whole new world.
The popularity of French bulldogs and other brachy breeds has grown rapidly, such that they are now common in many countries. This has occurred despite concerted attempts to educate the public about problems in these breeds. We can't say, "How did this happen?" because many saw it coming. Welfare groups have been lobbying for years. Veterinarians, too, have been complaining, and professional bodies have been raising awareness and attempting to educate practitioners and pet owners.
Perhaps we have been taken aback by the sheer force of popularity of short-muzzles — and we blame that on celebrities and media. But we know now, thanks to research, that it is mainly based on the increased desire for small, extreme dogs that are perceived by their owners as cute or "funny" and having other desirable characteristics, such as a supposed low need for exercise.
We can decry owners who "just don't get it," but what about the veterinarians and paraprofessionals who own and even breed these dogs?
How do we deal with a crisis that involves intense human influences, a massive number of dogs and disagreements between veterinarians and other stakeholders about potential solutions? Members of the profession often have promoted and supported the popularity of these dogs by treating their problems as normal, posting pictures of "funny" brachys on social media, not participating in a registry of conformation-altering surgery and providing reproductive services to compromised dogs.
Major veterinary organizations have come out with broad-based proclamations but given the clear lack of success, what more could have been and should be done?
A new book edited by Rowena Packer and Dan O'Neill, Health and Welfare of Brachycephalic (Flat-faced) Companion Animals, (in which I co-wrote the ninth chapter on international aspects), asserts in chapter four that veterinarians' making money off these dogs — a clear conflict of interest — impinges on their attention to welfare. Owner attachment and desire also often seem to take precedence over what might be best for the dog.
The book outlines communication strategies that can be used to approach this touchy situation. But veterinarians in practice, especially under conditions of the pandemic, are stretched thin. They may not have time for nuanced conversations. Moreover, the many veterinarians working in corporate practices may have limited authority over such decisions.
In a nutshell, we have a lot of clients with compromised dogs who do not want to hear about it. Veterinarians normalize problems because they don't want to be confrontational and are pressed for time. So, cognitive dissonance is a problem. Veterinarians may treat the patient in front of them and hope someone else will fix the wider problem.
Veterinarians have called on breeders to change their standards and stop creating compromised dogs. Fair enough. But what about the majority of dogs sourced from breeders who are not under the jurisdiction of kennel and breed clubs? Most legislation is aimed at the pedigreed-dog world, even if a lot of the problem comes from outside. Breeders of purebred animals and their organizations are mixed in their responses, with some clubs taking major steps. But anger, denial and them-versus-us attitudes are prevalent.
What is the future for which we are laying the groundwork? Will we hope that brachy popularity wanes and the issue cools down? Can we be sure that without a basic change in attitudes, toward valuing health over appearance, that the dog-loving public won't choose some other, possibly worse, extreme dogs to be their darlings? Will our colleagues survive the challenges of compromised dogs, the pandemic and the realities of practice today?
What we can be sure of is that a better future for dogs — and veterinarians — requires a coordinated, multi-stakeholder responsibility for recognizing and addressing the problem. Isolated actions have not been overly successful in the past and are unlikely to work in the future. Breed bans and unilateral legislative actions are likely to be unenforceable, at best. Kennel club breeders should step up and make the effort to improve their breeds. But expecting them to solve the problems at a societal level is unrealistic. If people want these types of dogs, demand will support the supply, from whatever sources can be found.
Change even one viewpoint
What can an individual veterinarian do? Affirm your ethical principles and examine your behavior. If there is a disconnect, identify small steps to move in the right direction. That could involve no longer normalizing problems. Owners could be told, kindly and compassionately, that while certain health issues may be typical in the breed, they are not normal for dogs.
In addition, you could perhaps try to get people whose dogs require surgical altering, such as for narrow nasal passages and elongated palates, to spay or neuter their dogs. If the veterinary body or kennel club in your area has a registry for surgeries, such as that offered by the Kennel Club in the United Kingdom, contribute to it. Do not assist compromised dogs to breed and do not engage in (multiple) elective surgeries for births. Talk to your clients. Talk to veterinarians and techs who own these dogs. Find out their ethical standpoints and try to move them ahead, one step at a time.
You also may want to lobby your professional association, telling them that this is a problem that needs concerted effort, practical solutions and cooperation across all stakeholders in dog health and welfare.
In the aforementioned book on brachycephalic dogs, the editors question whether it is an "innate human flaw" to prioritize our own pleasure in loving these dogs above the lifetimes of suffering they may endure. Brachycephalic health problems are not truly an animal issue, but a human issue that affects animals. Consequently, human behavior change is the only effective solution. That begs the question: Can hearts and minds be changed?
Please know that I am trying to describe the situation without being judgmental. This is an emotionally charged issue from many angles for many different stakeholders. The scientific literature has documented the complexity of people's relations with brachycephalics, and the role these dogs serve in their lives. There is a lot of human psychology at play here, including of owners attracted to flat-faced animals, and breeders attached to the status quo. Removing the worst breeds doesn't change human behavior. If we do not educate people to want healthy dogs (and agree on what constitutes a healthy dog with adequate welfare), we may have to keep dealing with extreme breeds, as people feed their desires for "special" pets.
About the author: Brenda N. Bonnett, DVM, PhD, is a consulting epidemiologist and CEO of the nonprofit International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD). Earlier in her career, she spent several years in practice and many years as an associate professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College in Canada. Her academic achievements include more than 87 peer-reviewed publications and five book chapters across disciplines and fields, including clinical epidemiology, theriogenology, human-animal interactions, veterinary education and communication; as well as population-based research using secondary data sources (most notably, a large companion animal veterinary insurance database in Sweden) on dogs, cats and horses; and a recent chapter on international issues of brachycephalic dogs.
She founded the IPFD to enhance the health, well-being and welfare of dogs, and support human-dog interactions. IPFD is facilitating international dialogue and actions to address ongoing and emerging issues relative to extreme conformation in dogs, among other challenges.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.