Tackling Problems of Extreme Conformation: International MultiStakeholder Efforts
Possible health problems following extreme conformation in dogs has been known at least since the 1960s.1 Some of the breed standards were originally written based on a few or even only one single dog, regarded as an outstanding specimen at the time.
Brachycephalic dog breeds are today's best example of desired anatomical traits predisposing to serious disease, and the need for multi-stakeholder efforts to improve the situation. Brachycephalic dogs have shorter facial bones than meso- or dolicocephalic dogs; shorter jaw(s), flatter face with more prominent eyes and frequently also wrinkling of the facial skin. In brachycephalic dogs, there is a reduction in size of the bony case of the muzzle and facial part of the skull, but the soft tissue is not proportionally reduced in volume. Hence, the air-filled cavities of the nose, sinuses, throat and chest may be reduced in size and diameter due to soft tissue crowding, resulting in impaired airflow and compromised respiratory function. This condition leads to BOAS (brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome), the most serious of the health problems brachycephalic dogs are predisposed to.2 In addition to BOAS, brachycephalic dogs suffer from a wide range of health problems related to their anatomy, such as eye diseases due to their flat face and relatively prominent eyes, skin problems and dental issues.3
There has been a lot of focus on the brachycephalic issue, particularly the last few years. A working group was established between the kennel clubs of the Nordic countries (Nordic Kennel Union) in 2016. The working group submitted their report early in 2017. At the Dog Health Workshop in Paris, April 2017, the workshop “Exaggerations and extremes in dog conformation” focused their work mainly on the brachycephalic issue.
All the common anatomical exaggerations in dogs, somehow, have an appealing effect on people or are regarded as desirable. If not so, they would not be common. The brachycephalic appearance is obviously extremely appealing to people. Some of the brachycephalic breeds have increased amazingly in popularity through the last years (www.nkk.no). Many owners consider the appearance of the brachycephalic breeds to be the most adorable, and think the snoring and other breathing sounds are normal for the breed.4 Owners tend to fail to evaluate their own dog objectively in this context. All stakeholders share responsibility for today's situation — judges, breeders, breed clubs, kennel clubs, veterinarians, breeders and owners/buyers. The wide range of commercials and advertisements and media exposure of brachycephalic dogs has a strong influence on the puppy buyers' desire for this particular look in their new family member.
Hence, the brachycephalic issue is a matter where there are multiple stakeholders who must work together for improved health and wellbeing. The BOAS problem is a result of the dogs' anatomy.2 The written anatomical description in the breed standard, together with the traditional interpretation of this breed specific text, is the basis for which dogs are appointed to win in the show ring. A huge job has been done to improve the breed standard texts concerning health and function, but for some standards there is still need for revision. In addition, the judges' interpretation of the standard text, and the breed specific judging tradition, must be a continuous focus in judges' education and at judges' conferences.
Both owners, breeders and show judges must learn how to recognize breathing problems in dogs, and that breathing sounds are not normal in this breed. The brachycephalic, flat-faced anatomy predisposes the dogs to serious illness.2 To improve the situation in the breed populations, the mean anatomy of the population must be moved towards less exaggerated features, in order to minimize the prevalence of disease caused by extreme anatomy. The judging tradition, together with the puppy buyers' desire for a flat-faced dog, complicates the work towards a less exaggerated anatomy in these breeds. The demand for a certain type of dogs among puppy buyers is so great that there even has been established a big international business of smuggling dogs of smaller sizes across borders.
We will not see effective improvement of the situation until all stakeholders acknowledge their own part in this process. There is a wide range of stakeholders who can and must address their own role and do their share of the work.
The breed clubs and kennel clubs must do what they can and revise the picture of an extreme, flat-faced anatomy as the desirable goal in relevant breeds. The breed clubs should be encouraged to write an appendix to the breed standard (educational illustrated breed compendiums), with a wider and more detailed description of how the standard text should be interpreted, preferably including pictures of dogs of correct and incorrect anatomy. This would be a very useful tool for education of show judges and also for breeders. The show judges play a key role in this matter, as they are the ones deciding which dogs will win prizes at dog shows. Functional anatomy, soundness and wellbeing must be the ultimate goal of the judging in the show ring. The countries of origin and the FCI have the overall responsibility for the written standard text.
The owners and breeders are the ones who actually keep and breed the dogs, and their opinion is largely influenced by the judges - and the looks of the dogs that are appointed to win in the show ring. Even puppy production in puppy mills are influenced by the winners in show rings, as of dogs appearing in advertising campaigns and the media. Winners and media exposure of dogs with flat faces influence the consumers' desire for a dog with a certain look. Flat-faced dogs are not only bred by kennel club breeders. The huge demand for these sets the ground for commercial breeders of nonpedigree dogs. The authorities should consider setting up breeding programs aiming for better health also to non-pedigree dogs.
Veterinarians must adapt their forms and routines to be effective and reliable in examining brachycephalic dogs in a way that will reveal breathing problems or other symptoms of disease. There is also a great need for systematic gathering of health data, both on individual dogs and concerning prevalence of relevant diseases in the breed populations. Teaching the owners how to recognize breathing problems and other serious disease is a huge task for the veterinarians. Approximately 60% of owners of dogs suffering from BOAS, do not realize their dog is sick and that the symptoms are signs of serious disease.2,5 There is a continuous demand for education of the owners - both before they purchase their puppy, and throughout the rest of their dog's life.
1. Hansen HJ. The body constitution of dogs and its importance for the occurrence of disease. Nord Vet Med. 1964;16:977–987.
2. Packer RM, Hendricks A, Tivers MS, Burn CC. Impact of facial conformation on canine health: brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome. PLoS One. 2015;10(10):e0137496. doi: 10. 1371/journal.pone.0137496. eCollection 2015.
3. Packer RMA, Hendricks A, Burn CC. Impact of facial conformation on canine health: corneal ulceration. PLoS One. 2015;10(5): e0123827. doi:10. 1371/journal.pone.0123827
4. Packer RMA, Hendricks A, Burn CC. Do dog owners perceive the clinical signs related to conformational inherited disorders as 'normal' for the breed? A potential constraint to improving canine welfare. Animal Welfare. 2012;21(S1):81–93 doi: 10.7120/096272812X13345905673809ISSN 0962-7286
5. Liu N-C, Sargan DR, Adams VJ, Ladlow JF. Characterisation of brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome in French bulldogs using whole-body barometric plethysmography. PLoS One. 2015;10(6): e0130741. doi:10.1371/Journal. pone.0130741