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When beauty is pain

Friday, 26 May 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: NZVA Comms
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Brachycephalic dogs are wonderful companions, but they do have special needs and many health problems, with some dogs more severely affected than others. Veterinarians are committed to caring for dogs of all shapes and sizes, but with the rise in popularity of these breeds and their associated health problems, the New Zealand Veterinary Association is asking breeders, kennel clubs, and prospective puppy owners to take action to improve animal welfare. See Fashionable dogs facing a lifetime of misery

The NZVA says animals should not be purposefully bred with exaggerated features that harms their wellbeing. We examine this emotive issue in the upcoming issue of VetScript, our monthly magazine for NZVA members. We are making the article public and publishing it in advance:

VetScript article: WHEN BEAUTY IS PAIN

New Zealanders love their flat-faced and stubby bodied breeds, but many of these animals live in continued states of distress. Mirjam Guesgen investigates the controversy around canines and felines with significant phenotypical issues that negatively affect their quality of life.

Animal welfare scientist Ngaio Beausoleil likens the life of a brachycephalic breed to spending your whole day trying to breathe through a pillow. She describes their daily experience as always being conscious of not getting enough air, and feeling suffocated during exercise. It hardly sounds pleasant.

And yet flat-faced breeds such as Pugs, Bulldogs and Persian cats are fast becoming some of the more popular breeds in New Zealand. British Bulldogs were Dogs New Zealand's (formerly the NZKC) fourth most popular breed registered in 2015 and 2016. French Bulldogs were the sixth most common, with puppies commanding prices of between $3,000 and $4,500 each. When you consider that there are plenty of dogs sold by breeders who aren't members of Dogs New Zealand, clearly these breeds are even more in demand than official figures suggest. Their increasing popularity has Ngaio concerned.

She is not alone. Worldwide, veterinary associations, kennel clubs and government advisory bodies are looking at what they can do to improve the lives of these animals and others with severe issues relating to their appearance. In March the British Veterinary Association (BVA) announced that it would no longer accept advertisements that use images of Bulldogs, French Bulldogs or Pugs to promote non-breed-specific products in Veterinary Record and its sister titles.

As of July, the NZVA will follow the UK lead and restrict the use of images of brachycephalic breeds in VetScript. However, the larger issue, and where we go next, is not so easily solved.

Welfare problems are rife in canines and felines with severely exaggerated features. A 2015 study found that 75% of French Bulldogs showed "chaotic" breathing patterns brought on by airway obstruction. In another study, 50% of Pugs failed a simple walking exercise test, with 11% unable to withstand even the brief 11-minute task (Bartels et al., 2015). Perhaps even more compelling is that 100% of Scottish Fold felines have osteochondrodysplasia, creating varying levels of debilitating cartilaginous defects, not just in their ears (giving them their ‘appealing' characteristics), but throughout their bodies, including joint cartilage.

The root cause of these welfare concerns in the dog breeds is anatomy: shortened muzzles, shallow eye sockets, folded ears, large heads, long backs and shortened legs. But the same physical features that are causing problems also make these animals so beloved.

Where does the push for that look come from? In part, our love for cartoonlike eyes, squishy faces and little legs is psychological (Sandøe et al., 2017).

According to evolutionary biology, we are hard-wired to want to care for animals that resemble babies, with big eyes, round faces and stubby bodies.

These lovable features also make these breeds prime candidates for advertisers to sell everything from pet food to cars. Emily Osborne, a creative from advertising agency Colenso BBDO, explains that the brachycephalic's physical features give it an expressive or wistful appearance that can evoke the type of emotion a particular advertisement might demand.

She also concedes that the popularity with the general public of flat-faced and short-legged breeds plays into the choice to use the animals in advertising. "They have a huge presence in social media and are definitely seen as trendy on Instagram. That causes them to be seen a lot more in advertising. It's just reflecting popular culture."

It is a vicious cycle: people see these animals in advertising or on social media, and they might get one; advertisers see their popularity and use them in ads.

On one level, the push for particular physical characteristics comes from Dogs New Zealand breed standards. The standards describe the ideal and provide a benchmark that pedigree breeders aspire to and are judged on. For example, the ideal Pug is defined by Dogs New Zealand as one with a "massive" head, "very large, prominent" eyes and a "short, blunt" muzzle. Over generations of selection, these ideals have become exaggerated to the extreme.

Ngaio Beausoleil says the standards are completely arbitrary and serve no purpose other than to get a desired look.

Callum Irvine, NZVA Head of Veterinary Services, agrees. "There's no justifiable reason for doing it otherwise," he says.

"It doesn't make them better hunters or performers."

As the owner of two crossbreed canines herself, Ngaio argues that nearly all welfare issues in these breeds could be avoided by changing breed standards. "You can't have both," she says. "You cannot have the function and the short nose or stubby legs. You can't. If you start selecting on function instead of morphology alone, you're going to see a change."

It may not be surprising then that organisations worldwide have taken aim at the standards. The 2008 BBC1 documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed damned breeders for their "vanity over wellbeing" mentality. In 2016 the Australia RSPCA and the AVA jointly launched the ‘Love is Blind' campaign to encourage breeders to avoid selecting for exaggerated features that compromise welfare. And in March this year, NAWAC issued its report on selective breeding, stating that welfare issues and breed standards are intrinsically linked and that it is impossible to address one without also tackling the other.

This is not the first time that breed standards have come under fire, and history shows that support for them can wither in the face of new information.

Tail docking, for example, was once thought to strengthen the spine of a dog. The practice was also customary for many hunting dogs to prevent injury when moving through dense bush.

As our scientific knowledge grew, however, it became clear that neither of these justifications had merit. On the contrary, tail docking was increasingly recognised as causing welfare concerns such as acute stress, hyperalgesia and chronic pain – although the practice remained engrained in breed standards for the sake of tradition and aesthetics.

It took a strong stance from veterinary organisations for the practice to be questioned and for the standards to be changed, so that docking was no longer required in dogs that were shown. A 2014 survey conducted by Dogs New Zealand showed that the overwhelming majority of members are now strongly opposed to tail docking.

We may be at the beginning of a similar trend for severe phenotypes. However, there is a counter argument that breed standards aren't necessarily the root of the problem. Becky Murphy, Canine Health and Welfare Officer, Dogs New Zealand, notes that breeders accredited under Dogs New Zealand are required to keep detailed records and conduct health checks on their animals, and are held accountable if puppies display significant health problems. She also points out that New Zealand standards include a statement discouraging breeders and pedigree show judges from preferring animals whose features could be detrimental to their welfare.

That argument, however, leaves a lot of room for interpretation. People are notoriously poor at being able to detect signs of airway compromise.

One study found that 60% of French Bulldog owners could not recognise, or possibly purposely overlooked, signs of obstructive airway syndrome (Liu et al., 2015). It's a case of potential welfare concerns being normalised.

There is one thing that all players agree on: the key to achieving better animal welfare is starting a conversation with everyone involved. For Becky, this means educating judges on what to look for in a suffering dog – a process already underway. She believes this could be made easier with more objective and valid ways of measuring welfare compromise.

Dogs New Zealand has also formed the Brachycephalic Working Group to start conversations with brachycephalic dog societies across New Zealand.

In late April Cath Watson, representing CAV, met with the Brachycephalic Working Group. Rochelle Ferguson, CAV's Operations Manager, says this was an important step.

"By being involved with this group we hope to raise awareness of the welfare compromise associated with these exaggerated features, and support breeders who wish to improve the welfare of their animals," remarks Rochelle.

"It's fair to say that not every breeder can see the need to make changes, so in addition to working with breeders, it will be important to educate puppy buyers to make ethical choices, in a similar way to the movements for consumers to buy ethical food and clothing."

Beginning in March last year, VetScript developed a policy of not using images of breeds with features that compromise welfare in large numbers of their breeds to illustrate articles or stories, unless the stories were about those breeds.

The NZVA is continuing its discussion with advertisers on the use of images of exaggerated features that compromise welfare. This conversation began with a statement in the 2017 VetScript media kit dissuading advertisers from using images of animals with facial deformities, brachycephalia, severe chondrodystrophia or excessive skin folds. It is now following in the pawprints of the BVA (Waters, 2017) and will further restrict the use of such images in advertising in the magazine, unless they relate to a particular breed's health problems.

"During the month of June, Mark Ward, the NZVA CEO, will write to the current VetScript advertisers and media agencies and outline our position in an educative way," says Lynley Jenkins, NZVA Head of Communications and Engagement.

"He will explain the animal welfare issues that face these breeds and advise that, beginning with the July issue, VetScript will no longer accept advertisements that idealise or promote these breeds.

"At the same time, the NZVA will no longer use these breeds to illustrate its collateral. We've recently withdrawn Keeping you Connected, the NZVA's member-facing brochure that featured a Pug. Part of the process required for this type of change is to look in our own backyard and get our own business in order. As we do this, we would like to encourage veterinary practices to do the same thing.

"Things evolve, fashions change and so does our understanding of the science behind these decisions. It's timely for us to take a leadership role on this topic of animal welfare."

Colenso BBDO's Emily Osborne says that guidance from an authority body would be welcomed by advertisers.

"If the veterinary association were to come out and say they don't think it's ethical to continue to publish [images of] these dogs or cats, we and our clients would be happy to align with that concern.

"It's always about depicting animals in the most natural and happy way possible."

In the long run, conversations with owners are vital. What form they will take is currently under consideration by the CAV executive committee.

"With the NZVA/CAV submission on selective breeding of cats and dogs endorsed by NAWAC in their opinion paper, we have the basis on which to develop a position statement," says Rochelle Ferguson. "Member input about phenotypic problems of most concern will be sought to help form a CAV position statement on selective breeding."

Once developed, CAV will use this statement to promote the education of veterinarians, media, breeders and dog and cat owners to move these dogs and cats away from the exaggerated features that result in welfare compromise.

Empathy is key. "Ultimately," says Ngaio Beausoleil, "it's about trying to put people in the shoes of the animal and asking them, ‘How would you feel if this were your life?'"


Bartels A, Martin V, Bidoli E, Steigmeier-Raith S, Brühschwein A, Reese S, Kostlin R, Erhard M. Brachycephalic problems of pugs relevant to animal welfare. Animal Welfare 24, 327–33, doi: 10.7120/09627286.24.3.327, 2015

Liu N-C, Adams VJ, Kalmar L, Ladlow JF, Sargan DR. Whole-body barometric plethysmography characterises upper airway obstruction in three brachycephalic breeds of dogs, Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 30, 853–65, doi: 10.1111/jvim.13933, 2016

Liu N-C, Sargan DR, Adams VJ, Ladlow JF. Characterisation of brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome in French bulldogs using whole-body barometric plethysomography, PLoS ONE 10(6), e0130741, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0130741, 2015

National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. NAWAC opinion on animal welfare issues associated with selective breeding. ISBN Online: 978-1-77665-512-0, 31 March, 2017

Sandøe P, Kondrup SV, Bennett PC, Forkman B, Meyer I, Proschowsky HF, Serpell JA, Lund TB. Why do people buy dogs with potential welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inherited disease? A representative study of Danish owners of four small dog breeds. PLoS ONE 12(2), e0172091, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172091, 2017

Waters A. Comment: brachycephalic tipping point – time to push the button? Veterinary Record 180(12), 288, doi: 10.1136/vr.j1479, 2017