Flat-faced, French and fashionable

French Bulldogs, predicted to soon become the most popular dog breed in the UK, are vulnerable to a number of health conditions. Dr Rowena Packer and Dr Dan O’Neill, take us through their new research on this, published in Canine Genetics and Epidemiology.

The UK’s fascination with the French Bulldog and what it means for their welfare

French Bulldogs or ‘Frenchies’ as they are affectionately termed are the current must-have dog breed in the UK. Peculiarities such as their flattened faces, bat-ears, shortened bodies and characteristic gait have entranced a generation and the breed has become the Instagram-ready photo favourite for young people and celebrities, and also every advertisers’ default irrelevant breed.

Previous studies of French Bulldog owners have revealed that would-be owners are primarily attracted to the breed’s characteristic looks and size, but other beliefs such as the breed being a good companion and good with children also influence popularity.

Frenchie-mania has seen the breed jump to become the second most registered pedigree breed with the UK Kennel Club in 2017. But what about in the real world? The latest VetCompass™ study similarly reveals that the breed went from just 0.02% of all puppies in the general UK dog population born in 2003 to 1.46% of puppies born in 2013.

Sudden boosts in breed popularity open up the market to unscrupulous breeders who aim to profit by filling this demand in any way possible.

But what’s so wrong with being popular?

Although popularity may not be a problem per se, dramatic rises in demand – as witnessed in the Frenchie – bring many negative consequences for the breed. Many loving and caring owners do not realise the wider consequences of their actions when buying a puppy. The dog breeding market, as with many others such as the drug market, is a game of supply and demand that can bring out the worst in human nature.

Sudden boosts in breed popularity open up the market to unscrupulous breeders who aim to profit by filling this demand in any way possible. Bad breeders start to produce puppies without regard to the health and welfare issues. These poor puppies end up being mass-produced in poor conditions and without effective socialisation or preventative healthcare needs. With Frenchie puppies commonly selling for £2,000 or more, puppy farmers and illegal importers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere have seized these new opportunities for huge profits from this must-have breed.

Think twice before buying a Frenchie

It is essential that all would-be Frenchie owners think twice before committing to their purchase. Think first about whether this really is the breed for you and your family. Have you just been seduced by the incessant stream of Frenchie photos in the media or have you truly researched the needs of this breed and are certain this is the only breed suited to your lifestyle? If you still decide to purchase a Frenchie, think deeply about how you source your puppy so that you are not financing criminal gangs to bring suffering to yet more puppies in the future. Carefully, check potential sellers to ensure they are genuine and responsible breeders. This process can be aided by following the recommended processes within the Puppy Information Pack for the BVA AWF and RSPCA ‘Puppy Contract’.

impulse buying may be particularly problematic with these breeds.

Popularity surges based on fashion and appearance promote impulse-buying without taking sufficient time to research the health and welfare issues of these dogs. As brachycephalic (short muzzled, or ‘flat faced’) breeds such as the Frenchie are increasingly recognised to be affected by a wide range of health disorders, impulse buying may be particularly problematic with these breeds.

Are Frenchies as unhealthy as they say?

Our new VetCompass study showed that nearly three quarters of Frenchies had at least one health problem recorded during a single year. The most common disorders affected the skin and ears, for example ear infections, allergies and infections under the skin folds commonly found over Frenchies’ noses. Other common disorders included airway disease, also seen in other short muzzled breeds and associated with their short muzzles.

Because of the Frenchie’s recent rise in popularity, many of the breed in the UK are relatively young; indeed in our new study, the average age was a mere 1.3 years old. Given that the risk for most diseases rises as dogs age, this suggests that the health results shown in this study are ‘best-case’ scenario and will become much worse for this same group of dogs as they age.

As some of the Frenchies’ disorders are closely associated with their body shape, avoiding some of the most common health disorders will be almost impossible while owners continue to seek out and demand the unhealthy, extreme features in this breed.

Are Frenchies here to stay?

A previous US study identified boom-bust patterns of growth and decline in some dog breeds, where on average, the increase (boom) phase lasts around 14 years before a decline occurs.

From these data, we might anticipate that Frenchie numbers will eventually start to fall within the next decade. However, the same study also identified that some breeds show booms in popularity without the sharp decline, instead maintaining a reasonably high level of popularity. New evidence suggests a large proportion (93%) of flat-faced dog owners intend to buy their chosen breed again: Frenchies may be here to stay.

Information is power

The data presented in our new study is of high importance to both current owners, potential puppy buyers and veterinarians.

New UK dog owners will be emotionally and financially invested in their breed for many years and must educate themselves on the health problems their dog may face, and what signs to look out for: forewarned is forearmed. The misconception that some signs of disease such as noisy breathing, sleep apnoea or fainting can be considered ‘normal for the breed’ should be avoided as it may lead to under-treatment of disease and perpetuate suffering.

This study may assist prospective new owners to decide if a French Bulldog really is for them. Do they have the emotional and financial capabilities to care for a dog that may experience multiple health problems? Are they willing to run the risk of supporting unethical breeding in their quest to find a responsible breeder and healthy puppy? Are there not some other breeds that may fit their lifestyle niche that bring lower risks of ill-health and of lining the pockets of criminals?

Veterinarians have the chance to be a guiding force in this process, empowered with up-to-date knowledge from studies such as this, to help individual owners find the right breed for them, while helping to improve the welfare of the wider canine population.

Dr Rowena Packer & Dr Dan O’Neill

Rowena is a Research Fellow at the Royal Veterinary College, London (RVC). Her primary research interest is the interplay between canine health, behaviour and welfare, with a focus on inherited diseases. Rowena's PhD focused on the health and welfare consequences of breeding for extreme canine conformation, particularly brachycephaly and chondrodystrophy.

After graduating from Dublin Vet School in 1987, Dan worked in industry and general practice for 22 years whilst gathering additional qualifications in pharmacology, feline practice, dermatology and business management. Dan is a Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Epidemiology at the RVC.

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