Flat snouts, spherical eyes, large, upright ears - many dog lovers find French bulldogs just cute. However, the breed is extremely susceptible to diseases. Many animals suffer from breathing difficulties, skin inflammation or problems with the musculoskeletal system. Taken together, French bulldogs are more prone to 20 ailments than other breeds, according to British scientists from the Royal Veterinary College in London. Conversely, these dogs are better protected than other breeds from eleven diseases.
In many countries, the small dogs have been exceptionally popular for several years. They are seen as the companions of fashion-conscious city dwellers, but many families also keep one of the dogs, which is generally described as friendly. In Great Britain, the number of French bulldogs has increased twenty-fold in the past decade, as the entries in the umbrella organization of British dog breed clubs show, writes Dan O'Neill's team in the specialist magazine "Canine Medicine and Genetics". The interest is unbroken, although the health problems of the breed are well known.
Like pugs, bulldogs belong to the so-called brachycephalic – i.e. short-headed – breeds. One could say less scientifically: The animals have a flattened snout. This often leads to breathing problems, but also to disturbed temperature regulation because the release of heat through the nose is impaired. The dogs often pant constantly to avoid overheating.
The scientists evaluated data from veterinary practices from 2016. They compared the frequency of diagnoses of 43 ailments in French bulldogs and other dogs. The analysis showed that the bulldogs had a 40-fold higher risk of constricted nostrils, as well as a greatly increased risk of breathing difficulties (30-fold), ear discharge (14-fold) or skin inflammation (11-fold). Their risk was lower for undesirable behavior, for being lame or overweight.
The study shows that the health of French bulldogs differs significantly from that of other breeds and is often worse, the researchers write. From a health point of view, they can hardly be considered a "typical dog" anymore. Many of the disorders observed were directly related to the extreme body shapes that characterize the breed. Breeders could improve animal health by changing their physical trait requirements. "In order to meaningfully change the typical appearance of the French bulldog over time, breeders and the breed societies that publish breed standards need to move along," says O'Neill.
The governing body of British dog breeders have adjusted their breeding standards for the breed accordingly. "This is a very positive step in putting the dogs' health ahead of people's desires for their looks, and we must now continue this evolution of the breed towards a more temperate appearance," says O'Neill. Dog owners are also in demand. According to the study, they could steer further development in a different direction by their purchase decisions for animals with less extreme characteristics.
"We urge prospective owners and breeders to carefully consider any French bulldog breeding and purchasing decision, and to seek health testing, evidence-based sources and expert advice," said Bill Lambert of the Confederation of Dog Breeders.
Problematic breeds - also known as torture breeds - are not only found in French bulldogs, the phenomenon affects many dog breeds. The problems are often the result of inbreeding in human-controlled breeding, researchers also recently reported in the journal "Canine Medicine and Genetics". They analyzed information on the genome of 50,000 purebred dogs from a genetic database and found that the members of a breed are on average genetically as similar as siblings. Such a thing would be considered of great concern to humans or wildlife populations.
Further analysis showed that dog breeds with a higher degree of inbreeding were more likely to need specialized veterinary care than others. On average, short-headed breeds were also less healthy than other dogs in this study.
Breeds with particularly low inbreeding rates included those that were recently crossed, including the Tamaskan, the Barbet and the Australian Labradoodle, as well as landraces such as the Danish-Swedish farm dog, the Mudi and the Koolie.
This article was first published in December 2021.