When Looks Go Before Health—The Welfare Impact on Dogs When Breeding for Extreme Conformation
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
M. Megens
Plan B Veterinair, De Moer, The Netherlands

The breeding of dogs with excessive traits and the impact on their health and welfare has increasingly come into the spotlight over recent years. There has been an explosion in the popularity of certain breeds with exaggerated traits, especially of those with extreme brachycephalic conformation. While often popular with the public, such a conformation can lead to severe health and welfare issues. Although many good breeders and breed clubs work closely together with veterinarians and other stakeholders to improve the current situation, unfortunately this increased demand has also lead to an escalation of numbers of dogs produced by unscrupulous breeders or puppy farms, with little concern about the health and welfare of the dogs.

The purpose of breeding dogs is to produce offspring with specific characteristics. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) currently recognises 344 breeds, the American Kennel Club recognises 193 breeds and the Kennel Club in the UK 210 breeds. However, not only purebred dogs are bred selectively: crossbreds can be created to aim for a certain look and/or behaviour, sometimes referred to as ‘designer breeds’. Originally, selective breeding was directed towards the abilities of the dog, for hunting, guarding and herding. Since the mid-19th century, dogs have been increasingly kept as companion animals. This meant selection has become more and more focused on the appearance and on the ‘popularity’ of certain breeds, with little or no emphasis on performance, health or longevity.

Selective breeding has many advantages. It maintains a diversity of breeds creating a wide variety in appearance, temperament, function and utility; factors that all play a role in human-animal interactions. It allows potential dog owners predict to some degree what kind of animal they buy. The natures of randomly bred dogs are less predictable, which may have implications for the relation between the animal and its owner. Careful selection can also eliminate or reduce the prevalence of certain diseases. However, selective breeding can also have a negative impact on the health and welfare of the dogs, for example when selecting for certain traits, such as short muzzles, excess skin, dome-shaped heads, ‘droopy’ eyes and sloped back. It can lead to severe health and welfare issues for the dogs involved.

Worldwide many veterinarians, and also breeders, are concerned with the declining health of dogs that are selected for extreme traits. However, as many of them still breed or are involved in breeding for extreme traits, it seems there is a lack of awareness. Do we, vets, bury our head in the sand? Do we unwittingly highlight the positive aspects of certain breeds and ignore the negative ones because they are such great dogs? Do we normalise breed-related health and welfare problems and consider or see it as being ‘typical for the breed’? Or do many of us try, but are we often demotivated because it is so difficult to get such an unpopular message across?

To raise awareness amongst veterinarian and to encourage vets to speak up, this lecture gives an overview of the welfare impact of some of the most common ‘groups of breeds’ or breeds that are bred for their looks. The lecture will not go into different diseases, nor does it suggest being a complete overview.

Brachycephalic Dogs

Probably the first ‘group’ of dogs that comes to your mind when talking about breeding for looks are the brachycephalic dogs. The popularity of these breeds has exploded in recent years. There are lots of breeds in this ‘group’, but the most popular ones in large parts of the world are the French bulldog, the pug, and the English bulldog. Brachycephalic dogs have a short skull shape, it looks like part of the skull is amputated, but most soft tissue structures of a non-brachycephalic dog are still present in a brachycephalic dog. Needless to say, it does not fit anymore and causes major obstructive problems also known as brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS). Unfortunately, owners often do not recognise the clinical signs of BOAS leading to major welfare problems for the dogs involved. Other non-respiratory problems we often see in brachycephalic dogs are for example eye disease, inability to mate or to give birth, skin infections and dental problems.

The German Shepherd

German shepherds are among the most popular dogs in the world. For the last hundred years, broadly speaking the breed has developed in two directions: a working line German shepherd and a show line German shepherd. In case of the show line dogs, looks clearly went before health. In these dogs, we see a steeply sloping back and very angulated hindquarters often leading to orthopaedic complications. The opposite occurred in the working line; these dogs were not selected for their looks and have a straight back and less angulated hindquarters.

Toy Breeds

‘They come in enough shapes and coat types to satisfy any preference, but all toy dogs are small enough to fit comfortably in the lap of their adored humans’. This is stated on the American Kennel Club site. It is evident, although selected for numerous reasons, looks comes first. One of the problems is the size of the dogs. It has become popular to produce increasingly unnaturally small and fragile dogs to fit the owners’ lifestyle (and/or handbag). Some of these dogs, like the famous Chihuahua and the Yorkshire terrier, have amongst other problems a higher than average incidence of hydrocephalus. An even more extreme example is the cavalier King Charles spaniel. Their brain size has remained that of a bigger dog, and their skull has become smaller and domed. In many cavalier King Charles spaniels, it leads to Chiari-like malformation and syringomyelia that are complex conditions that affect the brain and spinal cord. In mild cases, the only visible symptom can be the scratching of the back of their necks, while in severe cases dogs scream in pain.


Breeding for extremes is indeed the cases in giant dogs like the Great Dane, the Newfoundland dog, the St Bernard, the Leonberger, the mastiff, the Bernese mountain dog and the Irish wolfhound. Size comes with health issues, and therefore the average life span of a giant breed lies far below that of smaller breeds. Giant breeds die young. You may say, we have accepted it; many do not consider it young, but normal to the breed…

Low and Long Backs

‘It is important to bear in mind that this is a working hound and must be fit for purpose therefore should be strong, active and capable of great endurance in the field’ is stated in the Basset hound FCI standard 2011. However, their short legs combined with a long back are not really an example of good engineering. It puts the spine under much stress, which predisposes these dogs to intervertebral disc extrusion. Dogs like the Basset hound and dogs like the dachshund are deliberately bred to have a genetic deformity, chondrodysplasia. In time their legs became even shorter, and a more extreme deformity became the standard.

Dogs with Too Much Skin

Dogs with droopy faces, like the fearless Neapolitan mastiff and the powerful dogue de Bordeaux are some of the worst affected dogs with skin and eye problems but are considered to be good-looking. A Chinese shar-pei, with loose folds of wrinkled skin and deformed eyelids, is considered to be very cute. And what about the always popular and playful boxer? Due to the conformation of the head with long loose lips, it is not uncommon for them to drool. In fact, most people consider it to be normal to the breed.

The issue of extreme conformation does not just affect brachycephalic breeds. Apparently, a lot of people still find excessive traits attractive. But, we should realise that these great dogs are totally dependent on humans. If we choose to breed selectively, we also have to take our responsibilities. We should not accept that their appearance is more important than their welfare, nor should we deny that some traits that are considered to be normal to the breed are in fact defects. No one could disagree that health should always go before looks!


Speaker Information
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M. Megens
Plan B Veterinair
De Moer, The Netherlands

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