Put Down that Pug?

October 19, 2016
Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA

Treating preventable genetic diseases in purebreds is unethical unless we condemn the breeding practices that lead to suffering along with the sale of afflicted animals.

After reading an article about UK veterinarians urging pet owners to “put down that Pug,” I felt a new kinship to my counterparts across the pond. Indeed, I’ve long marveled at the tacit support we veterinarians lend the puppy industry in our silent treatment of purebred genetic diseases. Pledged to serve animals as we are, how have we allowed severe preventable conditions to reach routine status?

To wit, last week I found myself consoling a tearful client whose pet had finally become a burden too heavy to bear. Over the past year, the expenses for her French bulldog’s growing list of ailments had meant family vacations and home repairs forgone. Now, with Posey’s newest round of health issues, she’d put off her children’s dental work, too.

“I’ve had pets all my life and always saw to their healthcare. Suddenly I’m forced to choose between my daughters and my dog. How did this happen?” she asked.

Sadly, I had a simple, unspoken answer for her rhetorical lament: because you brought a French bulldog into your household (and didn’t purchase a health insurance policy, but that’s another issue altogether).

I know all about it. Like many suburban veterinarians in the United States, I’ve had a front-row seat to the surge in popularity of this and other brachycephalic breeds. I’ve even adopted three Frenchies of my own, each one after owners, at their wits’ end, elected to relinquish them to someone better able to manage the medical conditions they suffered.

In the case of French bulldogs, 2015’s third-most popular breed in the United States (sixth in the United Kingdom), the issue is especially acute. The dramatic uptick in their popularity has fueled a largely unregulated industry that breeds and peddles them with little interest in their long-term viability—–especially with respect to their respiratory and orthopedic health.

Due to the fact that, as we all know, breeding for the brachycephalic and chondodystrophic conformation that makes them “so adorable” to humans (I’m no exception) means selecting for extreme traits derived from congenital deformities; traits that lead to progressive, life-threatening respiratory ailments along with painfully debilitating orthopedic diseases.

Popular as they are, French bulldogs represent just the tip of the brachycephalic iceberg; they’re just the latest in a long list. English bulldogs are the original poster children for snub-nosed insalubrity (in 2015, numbers 4 and 7 on the US and UK charts, respectively). Hot on their heels come pugs, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Shih-tzus, boxers, and Boston terriers, among others. This admiration has spawned an epidemic of genetic disease that shows no signs of abating over here, even as Americans increasingly embrace mixed-breed shelter dogs.

As a result of the surge in our brachycephalic patient base, veterinarians like me have had to bone up on more than just our sensitivity to the exasperated and uninsured. In cities like Miami, where I practice and where purebreds are especially prevalent, we’ve had to become specialists in these specific issues. In fact, within a two-mile radius of my practice, I count eight veterinary neurosurgeons (board-certified in either neuro or surgery). A friend, who is one of these surgeons, confided, “We’d have less than half that if we didn’t have backs to cut.” I can’t remember ever referring a mixed breed dog for intervertebral disk-related surgery.

My own brachycephalics (yes, I keep a rescued pug, too), have suffered unduly from purebred diseases, everything from the pedestrian (surgical IVDD, severe brachycephalic airway disease, proptosed eyes, indolent ulcers, cleft palate, allergic skin disease, etc.) to the esoteric (hydrocephaly, a crippling angular-rotational limb deformity, subarachnoid cysts, and brain malignancies).

It’s enough to power a practice. Indeed, as our vet school path professor liked to say, “All you need to start a practice is a breeding pair of boxers or bulldogs.”

Given the preponderance of preventable genetic disease in our canine populations—–in both the United States and United Kingdom––it shocks and galls me that veterinarians don’t take a more public stand against this kind of purebred breeding. Sure, some of us may go out of our way to educate our clients, but is that enough?

Not really, I’d wager; not while bullies and pugs remain media darlings. Not while puppy mills and pet shops continue to meet the media-fueled demand and not as long as veterinarians like us don’t officially communicate our outrage over the chronic suffering we’re exposed to every day.

It’s clearly our responsibility; too bad the American veterinary establishment doesn’t seem to acknowledge it. I can only hope the UK’s example proves heritable, if not downright infectious. Put down that Pug, indeed!

Dr. Patty Khuly is a practicing veterinarian and pet health writer based in South Florida. She owns Sunset Animal Clinic in Miami, where she practices companion animal medicine full-time at a hectic four-person practice. She writes a weekly pet health column for The Miami Herald, a monthly column for Veterinary Practice News, and serves as regular contributor to Vetstreet. Her work has also appeared on MSN, Yahoo, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, among other popular online venues. As a blogger, she’s written for Embrace Pet Insurance, PetMD, Pet360, and her own celebrated blog at DrPattyKhuly.com.