You think this dog looks cute? They’ll cost you!
If you ask any dog owner, they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms that their dog is the best. They’ll pull out their phone and show you their favourite pictures. They might show you a funny video with their tongue stuck out, or maybe they have a clip of their pug or French bulldog snoring. They might have no idea that something is wrong.
My dog Yogi has the sweetest face. He has deep brown eyes and he smiles at you if you ask. He’s one of two brachycephalic (flat-faced) pets owned by my family, in a string of dogs just like him. We’ve been loyal to our breed since I was a teenager, and I’d like to think that returning to our breed has more to do with the loving, playful nature of our animals, rather than their features. That said, I can’t deny that their features were likely a factor in us bringing our first boxer dog home. He had such a “squishy” face. His life was cut painfully short but twenty years later, we’ve had many others just like him.
When I started working on the RSPCA’s Save Our Breath campaign, I immediately shut down the notion that our beloved family pets were part of the problem. Since our very first dog, we were careful and selective with where they came from. If anything, we have been obsequious dog owners, taking incessant note of their behaviours. My mother’s life revolves around them, but they’re fine. Sure, they snore a bit. There was also that time Madison had a huge dental issue that required extensive surgery, but she’s fine now. Except sometimes she faints.
There was the time one of our previous dogs had chronic eye problems in his old age. He experienced a painful ulceration that left his eyes cloudy and clogged with yellow gunk. We gave him drops every day until he died, but he was fine. Now that I think about it, heat waves aren’t too great for them and last summer was pretty unbearable. Exercise can really wear them out, too. They’re fine though.
Except maybe they’re not.
For many brachycephalic pet owners, we have the “but mine is fine” line on repeat. It’s habitual, taking time to unpack, unlearn and rewire. It is so deeply entrenched that I’ve had to switch gears slightly, and I admit it feels shameful to pick apart the deep denial that has stemmed from the normalised daily behaviours of our pets. We are used to them snoring, snorting, and sometimes propping their heads on the side of sofas and toys to sleep. We know to protect them from the heat, and not to over-exert them with their favourite tennis ball. We view our pets through a distorted lens in which we are so accepting of their health issues and risks because we love them and to us, the happiness they give us is worth the pain we feel. They are worth every tear and every vet bill.
Brachycephalic pets like mine are sadly predisposed to a number of devastating and life-limiting health issues, and some will have a significantly shorter life span as a result. It’s all too true that many animals will need invasive treatments and surgeries to remedy the consequence of their extreme features.
Sadly, many brachycephalic animals such as French bulldogs, British bulldogs and pugs (amongst a long list of others) will face heartbreaking illnesses. For many, every breath is a struggle due to brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS), which makes it extremely difficult for affected animals to breathe. BOAS is a crushing diagnosis and the solution is an invasive treatment and costly surgery, which is hugely distressing for both pets and their owners.
It’s also true that brachycephalic animals are becoming more extreme and profitable. Their prolific status means that they are in high demand. Their faces are becoming even shorter, with skin folds that sometimes cover their nostrils. These skin folds and wrinkles can cause chronic skin problems and painful infections. Their windpipes are narrow, making it even more difficult to breathe.
They might also face dental problems, eye issues, spine deformities, and joint disease. Their features aren’t so cute to me now, only the symptoms of a crisis. A ‘squishy’ face and bulging eyes are no longer cute when it is an indication of all the things that can go wrong. Put bluntly, a flat-faced animal can be a biological nightmare.
Owning a flat-faced animal can be expensive and in the face of a crippling financial crisis, many pet owners will be forced to choose between vet treatment and other responsibilities. Some might even be forced to give up their animal and charities will be left to pick up the pieces.
There will be plenty of these animals needing a home in the coming months, and if you are set on getting one, please consider adoption. I love my brachycephalic dogs, but I want to see future generations of them protected from the devastating consequences of their breed.
Yogi has the sweetest face, but I wonder how much of a price he’s had to pay for it.
By Shelley Phillips, RSPCA campaign manager