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Episode S3E4
Dogs with exaggerated features

Squishy faces, bulging eyes, curled tails ... Unfortunately, these features can represent serious health and welfare issues for certain breeds of dogs and cats (like Pugs, French Bulldogs, British/English Bulldogs and Scottish Fold cats).
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Thursday, 29 February 2024
On this episode of Great & Small Talk, we chat with RSPCA Australia's Chief Science Officer Dr Suzie Fowler, to uncover the daily struggles experienced by these breeds as a result of the very features they’re known for.


Brian: Hello and welcome to RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk, where we discussed the pressing welfare issues animals face in Australia today. My name is Brian Daly and today we're talking about an animal welfare issue that is really hiding in plain sight in thousands of homes and families around Australia. It's the alarming health issues that many popular breeds of dogs suffer due to the process of breeding them to enhance or exaggerate certain features. And joining us to discuss this issue today is RSPCA Australia's Chief Science Officer, Suzie Fowler. Welcome to the podcast, Suzie.

Suzie: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian: Now, I'm sure there are many people who would be surprised to hear that the health of many quite popular breeds, is severely compromised due to the distinctive features their breeds are actually known for. Could you firstly explain what we're talking about when we say "exaggerated features"? And what are some of the most extreme examples?

Suzie: Absolutely. So when we talk about exaggerated features, we're talking about the physical features of in most commonly dogs, but also in cats. And I guess the best way to think about it is, if you imagine the more traditional shape of a dog's head, and or if you ask your kids to draw a picture of a dog, generally, what they'll do is draw a dog with a long nose, a long snout, perhaps with pointy-up ears, or nice floppy ears, the whole body is normally in fairly good proportion, with a nice long, waggy tail. But with dogs with exaggerated features, we often find that their head shape might be quite significantly different. These days, we have a number of dogs with very squished-up faces and so much shorter in the nose, perhaps their eyes look really big in relation to everything else, they've generally got fairly large heads, broad front of the body, much narrower in the back of the body. And, you know, with those faces, it tends to be so flat and squished that it's pretty much yeah, a flat face. Some other examples might be dogs with very long stretched bodies, and very short legs, perhaps very short screws, sort of curly tails, and things like that, or perhaps very wrinkled skin is another example as well.

Brian: And what sort of welfare issues do these exaggerated features cause?

Suzie: Unfortunately, the welfare issues with some of these features, they can be actually quite significant. And so let's take for example, one of the most common types of exaggerated features, which is these brachycephalic dogs, they're the ones with the squished-up face, and the very short nose. And so even though they've got that much shorter nose, and much smaller mouth, they still have to fit in the same anatomy as, say, your regular Border Collie or Labrador. So they've still got forty two teeth trying to fit in a much, much shorter face shape, they also still have to fit in the soft palate at the back of the throat, and all the other anatomy still squished into that short space. And so as a result, we see things like a much higher incidence of severe dental disease, because those teeth can't grow normally and they tend to be squished together. And we also see what we refer to as brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, or BOAS. And so that is where all of these changes actually lead to clinical signs that are a result of having a much more compromised airway. And so we start with perhaps the nose, or what we call the nares, which is the holes in the dog's nose. And they tend to be quite narrow, so the air can't move through the nose as well. They have that long, soft palate, that sort of flaps at the end of the throat, and perhaps a very narrow trachea as well. So that's your windpipe, that goes down into your lungs. And as a result of all of that, we might hear snorting and snoring sounds. And unfortunately, people think that that can be normal for these breeds of dogs, but actually, it's really not normal at all. It can actually be a real sign that these dogs are struggling to breathe. And the way that I like to describe that for people is if you can imagine putting a tennis ball in your mouth and a peg on your nose, that's sort of representing that obstruction that these dogs would be feeling. And then trying to breathe through that is hard enough if you're just stationary and not doing any exercise. But imagine trying to run around with that and try and suck in air to your lungs. It'd be very challenging. And so we sort of think that that's not a very doggy life to lead if you can't run around being a happy healthy dog, because you just can't get enough air in to be able to exercise normally.

Brian: So the breeds we're talking about there are things like Pugs and Bulldogs?

Suzie: French Bulldogs, your English Bulldogs, and Pugs. They're some of the most common breeds these days. And with those breeds comes a whole lot of other welfare issues as well. And so because they're struggling to breathe, we know that dogs, one of the key ways that they manage their heat stress like if it's a hot day is for panting, and that's normal for any dog, that that's the main way that they regulate their body temperature. But for these dogs, because they've got such shortened airways and other anatomy, they actually can't regulate their temperature as well. And so they're much more at risk of heat stress and heat stroke, and often at very low temperatures compared to a standard dog. So temperatures as low as 24, 25 degrees can actually be quite hard for these dogs to exercise in.

Brian: Wow. So they're struggling to breathe, and they're struggling to keep their temperature ... normal?

Suzie: That's right, yep. So really, not a very doggy life, if you can imagine that. Not easy to run around struggling to breathe. And that's, you know, at the end of the day, that's a pretty basic welfare right that a dog should have to be able to get enough oxygen in to feel comfortable. We even find sometimes that these dogs end up trying to sleep with a toy in their mouth. And that becomes a survival mechanism. What they're doing is they will have like a bone toy or something like that sitting in their mouth. And what it does is it opens up their airways, so they can actually breathe while they sleep. So it's their own sort of survival mechanism. And that's pretty terrible to think that these dogs can't just curl up into a little ball like your, like your normal puppy to sleep properly.

Brian: And although this is a huge issue in itself, it's not just the brachycephalic dogs that are impacted by this breeding process, is it?

Suzie: No that's, that's right. So some of the brachycephalic breeds have other complications as well. And so they can actually have hidden disease like spinal abnormalities that have come about because we've been breeding these dogs for how they look for so long; we haven't looked inside. And unfortunately, we find that their vertebrae, that's the bones in their spine can actually be an incorrect shape, often a wedge shape, sometimes they're missing altogether, or they can be fused together. And that can actually be linked to a genetic abnormality and a gene that called DVL2. And so we've been able to trace that for some breeds. But even going beyond the brachycephalic problems, and these airway issues, Pugs and other breeds because of the anatomy, their eyes can be quite exposed. And so sometimes with that, what we see is that they're much, at a much higher risk of trauma. And I myself back in the day of when I was a veterinary surgeon have had to remove a number of eyes from pugs, unfortunately, who have suffered that kind of trauma where their eye pops out. And that leads to quite significant injury, and you can't repair that sometimes, and you end up with a one-eyed Pug. So that they're some of the other things. And then, as I said before, and as we spoke about it goes beyond some of these breeds as well. And so we have Shar Peis, who have a lot of wrinkles. And they come with a much higher risk of skin disease, which needs constant management, both bacterial infection and also just feeling itchy and hot all the time. And then you have your other breeds like your Dachshunds that are long dogs, with a very long body and short legs that can lead to higher risk of spinal disease, arthritis and things like that. And we shouldn't also forget that cats can be affected by breeding for exaggerated features as well. So a Scottish Fold cat is often bred for its very short features, and also very unusual folded ear shape, but that actually comes about as a result of cartilage abnormalities. And unfortunately, a number of those kittens die before they even really make adulthood. And for those that do survive, they can be at a really high risk of severe arthritis, which can obviously lead to pain and distress over their life as well.

Brian: It seems counterintuitive that breeders and associations and owners who ostensibly love their dogs, would knowingly and intentionally breed them into a life of guaranteed suffering like this. These are potentially life-threatening traits that have been deliberately bred for, as you say, can you explain how we ended up here?

Suzie: Yeah, I tend to agree with you, Brian. It does, does go beyond understanding why we keep breeding some of these animals. I think there's unfortunately been a really big pop culture push; these dogs have become really popular on social media. And we know the power of social media in this day and age. And so people see the cuteness factor well before they see perhaps the consequences of breeding for that. I think there's unfortunately, it's also been normalized to some degree. You know, I said before that the snoring and snorting that these dogs do and that that sound that they make when they breathe, some people think that that's really cute and funny. Unfortunately, it's not normal for a dog to have to breathe through that. And another complicating factor is actually that the kennel club breed standards, unfortunately support some of these breed practices. Some of these dog breeds are actually described in the kennel club's own breeding and judging criteria to have very short features. And so it's been encouraged over the years. And if we look at a Pug from 100 or so years ago, a picture of a Pug they actually had a defined nose. And nowadays, you see a Pug, hardly any nose, very wrinkled skin over the top of the nose and things like that. They're a very different dog as a result of the breeding strategies that have been undertaken.

Brian: Yeah. So what's the solution here? I know in other parts of the world, there's been changes to breed standards. Is that something we can do here? Surely if we can breed these issues in, we can breed them out?

Suzie: Yeah, absolutely. I think there is definitely some movement and some recognition, which is the first step, and it's nice to see. The very first thing we should do is that affected dogs should just not be bred from. So any dog that has clinical signs and a welfare compromise absolutely should not be used for breeding. And we would call on people who are responsible for breeding dogs to ensure that if they've got an animal that needed surgery as a result of these sorts of consequences, or perhaps can't breathe very well, that they immediately get them desexed to ensure that that genetic sort of predisposition to these conditions isn't passed on. The other thing that we can do, I spoke before about the DVL2 gene that causes the spinal abnormalities and these hemi-vertebrae, that can actually be tested for in some of these breeds of dogs. And so we encourage anyone who's going to breed, say French Bulldogs and things to actually test for the DVL gene, and make sure that they're not carrying it. Unfortunately, for some breeds, there isn't genetic testing. And so you have to do X-rays and things. And we would encourage breeders to make sure that they do get their animals screened, before selecting them for breeding and engaging with a veterinary practitioner for that type of advice. So that's some of the early things if you're going to breed dogs, and then we actually think that for some of these breeds, we're at a point that we do need to consider crossbreeding and outbreeding, to dogs, perhaps with a longer nose with much better physical characteristics. And I see that we're starting to get to that point that we're gonna have to sort of at least do that for a couple of generations to expand the genetic pool, really change the anatomy, and then once that's been achieved, with enough dogs, you can then go back to crossing them to more pure again, but I think we would encourage some breeders to start considering those sorts of steps.

Brian: And they're obviously an important stakeholder, the breeders, it all revolves around them. What's the feeling like there in the associations to make these moves to improve the health of these animals that they do obviously love, but are breeding these terrible features into them.

Suzie: There's definitely some, as I said before, some recognition of these problems now, which is really great to start to see the conversation happen amongst the breeding community. They have recently invested in developing what's called a respiratory function grading scheme here in Australia. So that involves taking potential breeding dogs and putting them through their paces, if you like, and seeing how their breathing responds to certain activities. That's at very early stages. So we're sort of not, we don't have enough evidence to say that that will make a change yet, what we would call for is ensuring that they don't breed from moderately affected dogs or, or severe affected dogs that, you know, if a dog's got breathing issues, full stop, it just shouldn't be bred from, because by propagating it through the genetics and allowing another generation to happen, it's just going to take forever to get rid of these sorts of problems. And so we do call on them through that scheme, hopefully, to be choosing unaffected dogs as much as possible. I guess one of the things that's really clear to us is that this is a multifactorial problem, and there's not going to be a single solution to it. It's happened over, say, 100 years, but it's definitely been escalated in the last 10 or 20 years because of the popularity of these breeds, and the popularity of these features, and so it's going to take a while for us to breed it out. But we think that there's no one single solution. So hopefully, we can get breeders on board, and there are some who are really taking active steps, proactively choosing dogs with the longer noses as I said, and items like that. And I think at the end of the day, hopefully we can encourage and escalate the popularity of dogs should have a bit of a nose. And that will be what what makes the change at the end of the day is trying to make sure that people choose the right type of dog.

Brian: Yeah, I remember going back to the days a long time ago, the movie "Milo and Otis" and after that there was an explosion of Pugs being really popular because of that film. So it's it as you say that pop culture, it's always been a driver of this, I guess. And that's just exploded with the social media kind of everybody is laughing at these cute Pugs that are snoring in the middle of the night and all that sort of thing. And it's it's really it's like a lot of animal issues on social media. It's just this lack of knowledge of actually what's going on there. You know, the advise with the selfies with the wild animals in zoos and things like that. They think it looks great on social media, but it's really detrimental to these animals like severely, you know, compromising them. So this demand that you talk about how can we alert dog owners or potential dog owners to these issues, you know, because they see all these things and there is this pop culture of hey, I love that I want it when I get this this pug looks cute and they are cute dogs and they're the face that with the big eyes and make it look like a little human being in many ways. You know, it's there's there's love for the better and obviously, obviously it's driven by love with these animals and the breeders themselves that want to do this and they want these characteristics of their personalities. But as you say if we cross breed them out they'll still retain those personalities. How do we get these messages? As you say it's a multifactorial issue. How do we get these messages out? What can consumers do to help?

Suzie: The RSPCA has been talking about this issue for a really long time, and it is concerning to us that the popularity of these breeds just seems to be skyrocketing. I think it does come down to consumer and demand. And what we would encourage people to do if you're in the market for a dog is to do your research first and be really informed. And I can't sit here and tell you what the perfect breed of dog is for you and your family, because it's a very personal decision. But I can absolutely encourage you to make sure that you're really well informed before you take that step. And that's for a number of welfare reasons, obviously, not just doesn't just come down to the individual dog, but whether or not your family is ready for that sort of commitment. But I would say first of all, don't just take the breeder's word for it. Do your own research, and as much as possible, ask the really hard questions. Don't be afraid to ask them. Has your dog ever had to have surgery? How is its breathing? How does it cope on a 25 to 30 degree day, you know, all of those sorts of questions. But also there's lots of information out there. The RSPCA's own website, Love is Blind, has a lot of information about these animals with exaggerated features, as well as our Knowledgebase. But there's a lot of information out there. I think one of the things that we've touched on is that these animals sometimes need extensive surgery. And so go in there buyer beware, if you are going to look at one of these really popular breeds, do not be surprised if down the track, the dog needs extensive and very expensive surgery. And even then one thing that we would say is it's not always fixed. It's been really frustrating to hear some owners sort of say, "Oh, yes, but I love him. So he's worth the thousands of dollars to spend." At the end of the day, is it really right that a dog has to have surgery just to live, it's normal doggy life? That just doesn't make sense to me that we would think that it's okay, because we've got the money. And at the end of the day, you can't be guaranteed that it'll actually fix all the issues and the dog is gonna live a happy, normal life after that. I mean, I've heard stories as bad as dogs going to, you know, can't even naturally wag their tails, because the vertebral disease is so severe that it's painful for them to try and wag a tail. And I think that's just horrific, because that's probably one of the most basic, natural things that a dog would do. And so be really aware, I think, at the end of the day, go in to purchasing a dog or a cat, with your eyes wide open, do your research, and probably get some pet insurance if you're gonna go down that path of getting one of these breeds.

Brian: Because that's the other thing isn't as you say, it can be an expensive choice to make some of the paying thousands of dollars just for the dog up front. Whereas there's, you know, there's lots of dogs that need loving that haven't got good homes that could really do that. And you know, from my experience, certainly it's the it's those ones that you give a home to that otherwise, they wouldn't have that love and care. It's every bit as fulfilling as having a certain kind of breed.

Suzie: Yep, absolutely. I've got my own rescue mutt. People ask me all the time what breed he is, I have no idea. But he's, he's beautiful. And he's a great part of the family. And I wouldn't have it any other way to have him as part of our family. So you're right, they can fill your hearts just as much. And he's a scraggly little boy, he's perhaps not the cutest, he's never going to be a cover model. But he's his personality is what gives us the joy and the love in the family.

Brian: And I think that's that's really what most people are after, you know, another member of the family that they can they can love and cherish. So if you can choose the one that's going to have that long snout, and not those potentially life threatening issues that these these particular breeds, I think that it's certainly a great choice.

Suzie: Yeah, absolutely. And that's what's going to drive change over the short and long term is consumers making the choices on what they want. And hopefully they want a happy, healthy dog. And that's what we encourage people to think about when they purchase.

Brian: Well we'll have to see more, more Instagram shots of nice mutts that have been cross bred and rescued. That can be the new flavor. Hashtag #crossbreed.

Suzie: Definitely, I would love to see that, look forward to it.

Brian: Well, thanks for your time today. Suzie, it's, it's really great to talk about this issue. It's really frustrated me for years, you can probably tell, it seems so easy to fix in many ways, and and so unnecessary that so many dogs are deliberately bred into a life of suffering that could so easily be avoided. It's grossly unfair to me that these animals and to the humans that adopt them unknowingly and form such strong bonds with them, as you say, it's it's a cycle of suffering that I hope we can soon bring to an end. So thank you and the RSPCA are now you have as you said, you've been advocating for change for some time, so I really hope that the public can really get behind this and we can see that change happening. Thanks for your time today.

Suzie: Thanks very much, Brian.

Brian: We've been talking today with Suzie Fowler, Chief Science Officer at RSPCA Australia and thank you for listening. If you would like any further information on the health issues of dog breeds with exaggerated features, visit RSPCA Australia's loveisblind.org.au website, or the RSPCA's home website at rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the same website or at all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk.

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