Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Dying for breath

Dog breeds have always been subject to the fashions of the day. While originally selectively bred for traits that were useful for survival – hunting, retrieving, guarding, etc – few would be recognisable today, even to people from just a handful of decades ago.  Whether it’s breeding a leaner, faster racer, or a cuter, smaller, lap dog, humans have chosen the most attractive traits (to them), and fine-tuned them. 

In many cases, dogs’ visual traits have become the overriding selector in breeding, as visually appealing animals – or fashionable – sell quicker and for more money. This is causing some huge problems in the dogs themselves, particularly with brachycephalic breeds.

Brachycephalic breeds are those with flat faces; it literally means ‘shortened head.' Pugs, Boston Terriers, Bulldogs, Boxers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and many more, are all examples of brachycephalic dogs. Biologically, brachycephalic faces are the result of an undersized upper jaw, but in dogs, both upper and lower jaws are affected, and whilst the jaw is small, the tissues are of a normal size (for the given dog). This results in constricted airways and a propensity to suffer from a range of dangerous conditions collectively termed Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome (BAS).

You might be surprised to know that every brachycephalic dog suffers from some form of BAS, as well as being vulnerable to more dangerous conditions. The obvious symptoms, and those that you’ll recognise in many flat-faced breeds, are snorting, snoring, noisy breathing, and overheating (brachycephalic dogs can’t pant effectively). The less obvious symptoms are multiple and life-threatening. Battersea vets state that what some dogs experience is “the equivalent of us breathing through a drinking straw.” Imagine how it feels to go for walk, a jog, a run, or out on a hot day whilst only breathing through a straw.

BAS not only worsens with exercise, but also over time, and older dogs will have a greater likelihood of life-threatening conditions developing. There are other complications, too, that are not so well known, from eye diseases and dental problems, to repeated skin infections and an inability to give birth naturally.

The British Veterinary Association has been warning people not to buy flat-faced breeds since 2016, but there has been a big increase in their popularity. Perceived as attractive due to their pug noses, big eyes, and compact stature, social media and celebrity ownership has also spiked the numbers.

Worryingly, a recent report from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home revealed that, in 2018, it had to operate on more flat-faced dogs to help them breathe than at any time in its history: 62 lifesaving operations, compared to just seven in 2015.

The BBC recently highlighted this issue, and Battersea’s head vet, Shaun Opperman, stated that the number of brachycephalic dogs is; “one of the biggest welfare issues that Battersea is facing right now.”

Now, we love all dogs: big and burly, lean and long, cute, pug-nosed, stumpy-legged, big-eyed – we love them all. But, as appealing as these dogs can be, any encouragement or furthering of such extreme damaging-to-health breeding – especially for cosmetic purposes – is not only irresponsible, but very cruel.

Of course, breeding these dogs wouldn’t occur if the demand wasn’t there. If you’re considering getting a brachycephalic breed, read up on brachycephalic dogs, and have a chat with your vet before coming to a decision. Think very carefully about the distress their condition causes them, particularly as they age, and future medical treatments or operations that may be required.

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