'I love dogs - but we're ruining them'
By RSPCA dog welfare expert Dr Samantha Gaines
Florence, my 10-year-old rescue dog tears around the garden; a flash of white curls and high-pitched barks. I can't help but laugh as she zoomies around the flower beds.
The simplest of things bring her so much joy: running, playing and snoozing in the sun.
But these simple daily activities, for some dogs, are laborious tasks. For dogs such as pugs, French bulldogs and British bulldogs, just breathing is difficult, uncomfortable and can be very distressing.
Our desire for cuteness and the selection for shorter, flatter faces - known as brachycephaly - has resulted in dogs who struggle to breathe. Their excessive soft tissue causes obstruction in their airways and their abnormally narrowed nostrils and windpipes leave them gasping for air.
"And it's not just breathing difficulties that affect flat-faced dogs."
The French bulldog, who remains a hugely popular pet, faces a high rate of issues that can seriously affect their health. Eye problems are common due to the shape of their heads as well as skin problems from excessive wrinkles and painful back conditions caused by very short corkscrew tails.
And yet, this week (10-13 March), we will see these dogs coming together to trot around a showring at the 'world's greatest dog show', Crufts.
We'll see flat-faced dogs line-up to be judged on how they look with the one who best matches their breed standard, a description of what these dogs should look like, crowned best in breed; and possibly even best in show.
Urgent call to review breeding standards
Over the years, we have, like many others, called for urgent revision of breed standards to ensure they protect and improve dog welfare.
And, to be fair, there have been changes. For example, the Kennel Club recently committed to updating the standards for Frenchies which stresses the importance of the length of the dog's muzzle as well as having wider nostrils.
Many people will be watching closely to see if these changes will be reflected in this year's showring.
But is this enough when there are so many other serious health issues affecting this breed?
Recently a landmark ruling in Norway found the breeding of British bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles spaniels breached their animal protection laws. If upheld, this will have a significant impact on the way in which these dogs can be bred in the future.
Whether the breeding of these dogs violates UK legislation has yet to be tested but it should be of concern to those who breed these dogs.
I understand that there's a lot of love out there for these breeds. But it's wrong that we're knowingly breeding for features which compromise their basic health and welfare and, in my view, even worse that - we celebrate them.
The worst thing about this whole crisis is that we have done this to them deliberately
In our pursuit for extreme body shapes and dogs with shorter, flatter faces, we've created generations of dogs who struggle to breathe, struggle with heat regulation, are chronically tired and can't exercise without collapsing, and dogs who have to sleep with their head propped up on a pillow or with a toy in their mouth, just to help them breathe.
Dogs like our two-year-old rescue British bulldog Brutus; one of a growing number who are being signed over to charities when owners can't afford the expensive and complex veterinary needs.
Brutus is playful, sociable, full of character - but he's living a half-life; and his new owners will need to commit to his expensive ongoing medical needs. He can only manage 10-minute walks due to his breathing, and he needs a face-lift to remove the excess skin around his head that causes him problems.
Sadly, these serious health issues are often overlooked; in fact millions of people think it's funny.
Thousands of videos on social media of snoring flat-faced dogs are seen as cute or funny; but it isn't; it's a clear clinical sign they're struggling for breath.
Celebrities plaster pictures of their flat-faced dogs all over their accounts; a search for #puglove will present you with more than 7.5 million posts!
Companies use these dogs - with their bulbous eyes and squishy faces - to advertise everything from insurance to technology; and brands print them on items from socks to pencil cases, while characters like Patrick the Pug get their own movies and merchandise.
And there are also a lot of these dogs being kept as pets.
The Kennel Club's registrations of British bulldogs leapt 149%, between 2011 and 2020, while the number of French bulldogs being registered jumped 1,317%!
Even more are bred by non KC-registered breeders and many are bred by people who want to take advantage of their popularity without any regard to their health and welfare.
That's tens of thousands of dogs being born every year, selected to look cute and appealing but at a huge cost to their health and happiness, many of which will never live a normal life.
The RSPCA agrees that urgent intervention is absolutely critical for these types of dogs.
"But we, as individuals, also have an important role to play. We need to stop seeing these dogs as cute and recognise the serious health issues they face."
This week we've launched a campaign - Save Our Breath - in a bid to educate the public about the impact of this type of breeding on dog welfare.
We will be urging people to stop and think before they buy a flat-faced dog and to consider an alternative breed or crossbreed with a lower risk of health problems.
Even if you are not thinking about getting your dog we still need your help! When you're watching dogs parading around the ring during Crufts, don't coo over the squishy faces of the Frenchie, skin rolls of the bulldog, or bulbous eyes of the pug.
These are signs of dogs who are likely to struggle because of how they look. For too long we have been blind to their suffering and it's time we open our eyes and do something about it; for the love of dogs.