Are we missing some dog health quick wins?

Since December 2021, the VetCompass team, led by Dr Dan O’Neill, has published 3 open access papers that discuss the health of French Bulldogs, Pugs and Bulldogs. The first of these – French Bulldogs differ to other dogs in the UK in propensity for many common disorders – said that “the health of French Bulldogs is shown to have diverged substantially from the wider non-French Bulldog dog population”. In the second paper – Health of Pug dogs in the UK: disorder predispositions and protections – it was concluded that “the Pug has diverged substantially from mainstream dog breeds and can no longer be considered as a typical dog from a health perspective”. Most recently, – English Bulldogs in the UK: a VetCompass study of their disorder predispositions and protections – concluded that “the health and welfare of English Bulldog is heavily compromised”.

All 3 of these papers attracted attention in the national media (press and TV) as well as widespread discussion on social media. The Pug paper probably generated the most hotly debated publicity because of the choice of words “can no longer be considered as a typical dog”. Needless to say, views on social media tended to be polarised along the lines Kevin Colwill described in his commentary on the recent online discussion between Ante Lučin and Jemima Harrison. To paraphrase, Kevin said one group could relate to the sensibilities of the human end of the show lead, while the other group related more to the dog end of the lead.

There were clearly concerns among the pedigree dog (show/breeder) community that the first 2 papers were published with no advance warning given and no attempt to engage with breed clubs to manage the communication of the results. It also looked like the Kennel Club was on the back foot with these 2 papers and had to play catch-up in responding to the press. Thankfully, a more collaborative approach was taken with the Bulldog paper so that the KC and Bulldog Breed Council were made aware of the impending publication and had an opportunity to develop a more proactive response.

A different tone

I also think there was a significantly different tone to the Bulldog paper and that was largely due to the inclusion of a significant and useful historical context for the breed. I’m sure this was attributable to Dr Alison Skipper who was one of the co-authors. As well as being a veterinary surgeon, Alison describes herself as a veterinary historian and is one of the KC’s vets at Crufts. 

The paper says “during the 1890s, the combined influences of the breed standard and show-ring fashion drove a dramatic physical transformation of the Bulldog”. Additionally, “While these historical accounts are inevitably subjective, lack quantitative data and are largely grounded in superseded understandings of pathology, they nevertheless demonstrate that, over a century ago, the (English) Bulldog was already showing a variety of health problems that correlate with those still reported in the breed today, and that, even then, Bulldogs were widely considered less robust than many other breeds”.

One of the positive aspects of this historical perspective is that the breed changed dramatically in a short space of time which suggests it would be possible to do the same again and create the more moderate phenotype that the paper argues for (and the same applies to French Bulldogs and Pugs).

Visits to the vet

It’s worth remembering that the source data for these VetCompass papers are details of visits to a vet, recorded on electronic patient records. So, while the focus of each of the 3 papers I discussed above is on the differences in health between these brachycephalic breeds and “all other dogs”, we can also learn more about why these dogs visited the vet.

For Pugs, the top 5 reasons, accounting for 43% of cases were: Obesity, Otitis Externa, Overgrown Nails, Anal Sac Impaction and Periodontal Disease. For French Bulldogs, the top 5 (33%) were: Otitis Externa, BOAS, Anal Sac Impaction, Diarrhoea and Overgrown Nails. For Bulldogs, the top 5 (36%) were: Otitis Externa, Obesity, Overgrown Nails, Skin Fold Dermatitis and Prolapsed Nictitating Membrane Gland (Cherry Eye).

It is interesting to compare these 3 breeds’ Top 5 with the data for the other dogs used as a baseline comparison in the 3 papers. Periodontal Disease is number 1 (13%), followed by Otitis Externa (7%), Obesity (7%), Overgrown Nails (6%) and Anal Sac Impaction (5%). In other words, more than a third of the vet visits were associated with what most of us would describe as husbandry issues and that picture is not much different from the 3 brachycephalic breeds profiled. One of my veterinary friends commented: “obesity predisposes to anal gland impaction and fat dogs often don’t exercise and wear down their claws”. Another reminder of the importance of systems thinking!

It makes me wonder if we and the vets are missing a trick when it comes to providing “health advice” to buyers and owners of dogs. Thinking of my own breed, our Dachshund Health UK website does have a section on caring for your dog. This includes advice on body condition and grooming which addresses 4 of the top 5 common reasons for a visit to the vet. I do think we could be much more proactive with this advice and make greater use of our social media channels to get these messages out, particularly to new owners. A couple of years ago, we commissioned pictures of Dachshunds to illustrate a bespoke Body Condition Score chart, so we have very clear advice on the evidence of obesity (or undernourishment). Breed clubs need to be proactive in helping people to be “good owners”.

A role for breed clubs

It’s not just the Pug, French Bulldog and Bulldog clubs that are defending their breeds by highlighting the problems of breeders outside the show community and outside the KC registration system. This is an issue that, potentially, applies across many breeds because the UK dog population data tells us that there are at least as many unregistered “pedigree” dogs as KC-registered ones.

There is an opportunity for breed clubs to engage with many more owners than just those in the show community. By doing this, breed clubs can collect data on health issues and offer advice on husbandry to the widest possible group of owners. If we only engage and collect data from the show community, we have absolutely no evidence to support the assertion that our dogs are healthier than everyone else’s. We have to be inclusive, not elitist, if we are truly interested in preserving our breeds and improving their health and welfare for future generations.