UK Study Confirms English Bulldogs Are a Genetic Tragedy


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English bulldogs are an unhealthy bunch, new research this week reaffirms. Scientists in the UK have found that these dogs are much more likely to develop a variety of health problems than other breeds—over 30 times more likely for some conditions. But the team says it’s still possible to steer bulldogs in a healthier direction, without drastic measures like bans on their breeding entirely.

The research was conducted by scientists from the Royal Veterinary College in England. They analyzed data obtained from VetCompass, an ongoing research project run by the college that’s been collecting (de-identified) medical information from real-life vet visits throughout the country. They compared the randomly selected medical records of more than 2,600 English bulldogs to the records of 22,000 non-bulldogs in 2016, looking for the presence of over 40 common disorders.

Overall, they found that English bulldogs were twice as likely to be diagnosed with at least one of these disorders annually than non-bulldogs. And while bulldogs were less likely to have some conditions, such as dental disease, they were altogether predisposed to develop 24 out of 43 (55.8%) specific disorders. For certain conditions, this increased risk was higher.

For instance, English bulldogs were 38.12 times more likely to develop skin fold dermatitis—inflammation deep in the pockets of a dog’s wrinkly face that often leads to infection. They were also 26.79 times more likely to develop “cherry eyes,” a rare condition that causes a protruding red mass to form in the corner of the eye that raises the risk of infections. These problems aren’t just causing misery for bulldogs and their owners; They’re likely contributing to a shorter lifespan. Only one in 10 bulldogs were over the age of eight in the study sample, compared to a quarter of non-bulldogs.

Other research has long indicated that English bulldogs are unhealthier than the average dog. But the authors say theirs is the first to compare the breed to so many other dogs in this large of a sample size, which should allow for a better assessment of the issue. The team’s results were published Tuesday in Canine Medicine and Genetics.

“The major finding from this study is that the health of English Bulldogs owned as pets in the UK is substantially lower than for dogs that are not English Bulldogs,” study author Dan O’Neill, a veterinary epidemiologist at the college, told Gizmodo in an email.

At the same time, this greater risk of worse health isn’t wholly isolated to English bulldogs. The team’s earlier work found a similar pattern for pugs, while other studies have shown a greater prevalence of problems for brachycephalic breeds in general, which include English and French bulldogs, pugs, and Boston terriers, among others. These dogs are characterized by their flat faces and shortened muzzles—traits that generations of human-driven breeding have selected for and emphasized over time. But these same traits are contributing to health problems, such as narrowed or obstructed airways that make it difficult for dogs to breathe easily.

Veterinarians have long called for breeders to recognize that brachycephalic dogs aren’t as healthy as they should be, and more recently, some countries have begun to enforce more stringent regulations and laws on the breeding of these dogs. This February, a Norway court decision even effectively banned the breeding of English bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles spaniels.

O’Neill and his colleagues aren’t convinced that future bans are the most effective way to safeguard the current and health of these breeds. He’s one of many researchers and dog welfare advocates in the UK who are part of the Brachycephalic Working Group. While the group has pushed for the public to reconsider buying these dogs and further driving up demand, they also believe that it’s still possible for dogs that we consider English bulldogs to be bred responsibly. That said, it will also take serious public pressure to force a change in breeding practices, and he hopes the team’s findings will provide a roadmap for what these changes should look like.

“To protect the breed for the future, the public must demand future English Bulldogs that are much more moderate in conformation; eg longer muzzle, a non-protruding lower jaw, flatter skin, longer tail,” he said. “The power to ensure in the future that we can have dogs that we call English Bulldogs while these dogs still have good welfare lies heavily in the hands of the public.”

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