Norwegian court cracks down on flat-faced dog breeds

Ruling bans breeding of English bulldogs, cavalier King Charles spaniels

Published: February 01, 2022
AdobeStock/feeferlump photo
The breeding of English bulldogs (like the one pictured) has effectively been banned in Norway after a court there ruled their production breaches existing animal welfare law. The ruling also applies to cavalier King Charles spaniels and may set a precedent for limits on other flat-faced breeds.

A Norwegian court has made a landmark ruling that effectively bans the reproduction of two common breeds of flat-faced dogs, heartening animal welfare supporters and unsettling kennel clubs worldwide.

The Oslo District Court on Monday ruled that breeding English bulldogs and cavalier King Charles spaniels breaches the Nordic country's existing animal welfare legislation. Should they reproduce, the dogs must be outcrossed with another, healthier breed.

The lawsuit was brought by the Norwegian Society for the Protection of Animals, which opposes the breeding of animals with serious health issues, including those caused by a flattened face, or brachycephaly.

"For many decades, sick dogs have been bred in violation of Norwegian law," NSPA chief executive Dr. Åshild Roaldset said in a statement.  "What has taken place here is a systematic and organized betrayal of our four-legged friends. Today, it has been confirmed that it is a crime."

The Norwegian Kennel Club, which opposed the NSPA's lawsuit in court, said it was "surprised and disappointed" by the ruling, arguing that it would be bad for animal welfare.

"Irresponsible players will be ready to take over the market, with the production of dogs from breeding that are not subject to any form of control," the club chairman, Tom Øystein Martinsen, said in a statement. He added that the club is considering an appeal.

Brachycephaly is evident in more than a dozen breeds, including bulldogs, pugs and Boston terriers, and found in other types of animals, too, such as cats, rabbits and horses. Structurally flattened faces are associated with varying degrees of numerous health issues, including difficulty breathing and reproducing, as well as eye, skin and dental problems.

The NSPA limited the scope of its case to English bulldogs and cavalier King Charles spaniels purely for practical reasons. It said the ruling set a strong legal precedent for discontinuing the breeding of other brachycephalic breeds in Norway. "It is a very thorough and principled judgment, which provides an important legal framework for animal breeding," Emanuel Feinberg, NSPA attorney, said in the organization's statement.

Roaldset said the NSPA was still studying the judgment and trying to get more clarity on what it means for other brachycephalic breeds in Norway. "The verdict is only regarding the two breeds, but the court states that it will possibly also have consequences for other brachy breeds, like the French bulldog and the pug," she said in an email to the VIN News Service.

In brief

The ruling's implication for imports also is being considered. The Norwegian government has been willing in the past to ban the importation of certain breeds. Currently, six dog breeds, including pit bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers, may not be imported into Norway because they are considered dangerous,

The court win for the charity comes after another European country, the Netherlands, in 2019 pledged to enforce its own anti-brachycephaly laws. That decision prompted the Dutch Kennel Club to become the first such club in the world to end registration of certain brachycephalic breeds — in its case 12, including English bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, cavalier King Charles spaniels and Boston terriers, sparking outrage from kennel clubs overseas.

Animal welfare supporters hope the latest ruling in Norway will be a catalyst for rule changes in other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

"I'm over the moon, and I sincerely hope that every country swiftly follows suit," said Dr. Emma Goodman Milne, the founder of Vets Against Brachycephalism, a campaign backed by more than 1,500 veterinarians worldwide.

Goodman Milne has identified the U.K. as especially ripe for change, given that it updated its animal welfare rules in 2018 in a way that implies that breeding brachycephalic animals is illegal there, too. "The U.K. kennel club should be deeply ashamed of their inaction," she said.

For its part, The Kennel Club in the U.K. echoed the concerns of its Norwegian counterpart, saying breed bans are difficult to enforce and could fuel irresponsible breeding and puppy smuggling.

"We are concerned about this blanket breeding ban in Norway and don’t believe it is a solution to prevent poor breeding practices or any of the complex health issues some bulldogs and cavalier Kings Charles spaniels can face," Bill Lambert, the British club's health, welfare and breeder services executive said in an email. "We believe a more effective approach is to continue to work collaboratively with breeders, vets, scientists and welfare organisations to research, understand and take a scientific approach with evidence-based actions ..."

In December, the British club updated its breed standards for French bulldogs "to further underline the importance of avoiding extreme features that can lead to health problems."

Kennel clubs often contend that health issues associated with brachycephaly should be addressed within breeds. Campaigners such as Milne opine that outright bans are necessary to change the status quo.

Views on the issue aren't uniform among veterinarians, with some supporting outright breed bans and others questioning whether they will be heeded by pet owners and realistically enforced. Many practitioners, though, are wary of the health risks associated with brachycephalism, judging from a message board discussion on the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of VIN News.

The lawsuit in Norway was based on section 25 of the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act of 2009, which states that breeding must produce "robust animals, which function well and have good health." The law also states that breeding shouldn't be carried out in such a way that it passes on genes that negatively influence an animal's physical or mental function.

The NSPA sued three kennel clubs and six individual breeders, including the Norwegian Kennel Club and the respective kennel clubs for English bulldogs and cavalier King Charles spaniels. (The latter breed is also susceptible to heart disease and syringomyelia, a progressive neurologic condition characterized by pain in the back of the neck.)

The NSPA noted the case, heard in the Oslo court in November, involved scrutiny by two co-judges: one a veterinarian and one a geneticist.

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