Owners of brachycephalic dogs are in denial, study suggests

2019-08-30
Brendan Howard, Business Channel Director

New research explores the paradoxes pet owners face when choosing dogs with conformational medical problems.

In recent years many in the veterinary community have decried the increasing popularity of brachycephalic breeds, which are adored for the “cute” traits that actually make these dogs extremely unhealthy. The truth is that the snub noses, “smiling” mouths and bulging eyes of these breeds make them look friendly and happy, when in fact these dogs are often straining to breathe.

In a recent study in PLoS One, researchers tried to quantify exactly how owners of these dogs may be deluding themselves about their pets' health. Their conclusion? These owners likely do not understand or appreciate the seriousness of their dog breed's conformational problems and necessary surgeries.

With 2,168 responses from the U.K., the U.S. and Canada-789 pug owners, 741 French bulldog owners and 638 bulldog owners-researchers asked dog owners about veterinary diagnoses, conformation-related surgeries performed, veterinary costs and emotional bonding. Here's what they found.

‘My dog has … '

The most common diagnoses that respondents shared from veterinarians were allergies (27% of dogs), corneal ulcers (15%), skin fold infections (15%) and brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) (12%). In addition, 20% of dog owners reported that their dogs had undergone one or more conformation-related surgeries. The most frequently reported surgeries were nostril widening (8%) and eyelid surgery (8%). Finally, with all bitches having had at least one litter to date, more than one-third of those required medical or surgical intervention to give birth.

How much did these problems cost dog owners? Respondents, whose dogs had a median age of 2.17 years, reported a median veterinary cost of 222 British pounds ($270) per year of dog ownership. Given the young age of the dogs, researchers hypothesized that “the alarmingly high disease prevalence values reported in the current study may still be an underestimate of the true age-standardized disease prevalence that will be shown by the study dogs over time.”

‘ … but that's not so bad, right?'

Respondents' perception of their dogs' health tells a different story than the medical issues they shared. A full 71% said their dog was in “very good health” or “the best health possible,” and just 7% said their dog was less healthy than average for its breed.

For example, replies to clinical questions indicated that nearly 40% of the dogs could be experiencing airway obstruction problems, but only 18% of owners of those dogs considered their pet to have a breathing issue.

“These contrasting and paradoxical results support the influence here of the ‘normalization' phenomenon,” explain the researchers in the study, “whereby owners of brachycephalic dogs may be consciously aware that the dog is struggling to breathe but not consciously accept that this is a specific problem, instead considering it a ‘normal' and therefore somehow acceptable feature of the breed.”

The owners seemed even less aware of their dogs' potential sleeping problems. While one study of brachycephalic dogs referred for surgical treatment of BOAS found 50% of those owners reporting sleep problems, just 3% of the respondents here did.

"Sleeping with a toy in their mouth or in a sitting position (strategies to avoid upper airway obstruction) may be considered as just cute quirks of their dog rather than indicators of true pathology.”

“It is … likely that many owners do not recognize sleep problems as a welfare issue and may instead interpret signs of sleep-related airway impairment as benign ‘normal' phenomena,” the researchers wrote. “For example, sleeping with a toy in their mouth or in a sitting position (strategies to avoid upper airway obstruction) may be considered as just cute quirks of their dog rather than indicators of true pathology.”

Thoughts for client communication

While explaining that more research needs to be done in the area of brachycephalic pet ownership and breeding, the authors also shared a few suggestions for veterinary practitioners:

  • Don't ask if there's a general problem-dig into specifics. “Specific closed questioning elicits very different responses than simply asking owners whether their dog has a problem or not, which may elicit wishful responses that ‘normalize' away unpleasant thoughts of ill health in their dog,” the researchers write.

  • Provide guidance about how much it can cost to own these dogs. “The full financial implications of owning a brachycephalic dog should be thoroughly discussed with, and considered by, prospective … owners. This may result in potential owners either deciding against purchasing these breeds that carry high risk of major costs or may encourage appropriate financial planning (for example, pet insurance) for those who remain committed to purchasing these breeds.”

  • Don't forget about obesity. Owners of these breeds may have preconceived notions that these dogs have low exercise requirements, when the reality is that they have medical issues that make it harder to exercise. “These breeds should not be marketed as having low exercise requirement as an inherent, and often appealing, breed attribute,” write the researchers. “Encouraging safe levels of exercise in brachycephalic dogs is important to promote fitness levels and avoid obesity, a risk factor for BOAS.”