The future’s… French?


Well, it’s official. This week, the Kennel Club has announced that registrations of French Bulldogs have overtaken Labradors as the UK’s most popular dog breed. This has sparked a great deal of debate among breeders, pet owners, and vets. However, a lot of the information being put out is quite confusing – and some of it is quite misleading – so in this blog I’m going to try and look at the facts behind the furore!

Are there really more Frenchies than any other dog?

Probably not – the latest figures relate to Kennel Club registrations. “In the first quarter of 2018 there were 8,403 French Bulldog puppy registrations, compared to 7,409 for the Labrador” – however, KC registered dogs account for at most 30% of the UK’s canine population, and we don’t know what breeds are overrepresented in the un-registered segment (personally, I suspect that mongrels and other breeds of bull-terrier are more common than Frenchies).
In addition, it’s the first time numbers have outpaced Labradors, and only apply to puppies, so they are probably outweighed by all the thousands of grown up Labs out there!
That said, the appeal of French Bulldogs is huge (they are often really sweet dogs!), and their popularity is growing incredibly fast, so these figures are definitely a marker of things to come.

Why does it matter?

Mainly because there is a serious potential problem with the breed – French Bulldogs are one of the more extreme “brachycephalic” breeds. This means that they have a very short face, and it’s this short face that gives them their “cuteness factor”. Incidentally, it’s thought that the reason we find flat-faced dogs cute and appealing is because they look less like dogs and more like human babies…

Why is having a short face a bad thing?

Because most flat-faced dogs have suboptimal airways. This is a condition called “BOAS”, or Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome. Essentially, the process of breeding these dogs to have shorter and shorter noses has shrunk the bone, but not the soft tissues of the head and nose. As a result, these dogs are prone to narrowed nostrils, over-long soft palates, and narrow windpipes – all of which restrict airflow to a greater or lesser extent. In addition, the wrinkly skin characteristic of this and other similar breeds is a breeding ground for bacteria, and skin-fold dermatitis is quite common.

Do they all struggle to breathe?

This is a controversial point! Most vets would argue that pretty much all Frenchies breathe less well than a longer nosed dog (such as a Labrador) on average. However, it is also true that many owners have flat-faced dogs that are active and healthy, despite their relatively abnormal conformation.
Overall, studies (here and here) show that slightly over 50% of French Bulldogs have such significant BOAS that they struggle to breathe, BUT that only 40% of owners are able to recognise the signs for what they are. I have certainly heard people say that snoring and snuffling is “normal” – OK, yes it is normal for the breed, but it is not normal for a dog overall!
That said, this study does suggest that nearly half of all Frenchies can breathe adequately (no BOAS or very mild BOAS), so the “they can never breathe” argument isn’t entirely true.

Don’t other breeds have problems too?

The biggest problem is that BOAS isn’t an “incidental” disease – like hip dysplasia in Labradors, for example. In that case, the hip dysplasia is something that isn’t a fundamental characteristic of the breed, so there is the possibility that it could be bred out, without getting rid of the features that make the breed unique. In the case of the Frenchie, though, BOAS occurs because of their flat-faces – a feature we have deliberately bred for! As a result, the risk of BOAS (and the skin problems) is a fundamental part of the breed – either we breed for longer nosed dogs, or we accept that we are condemning roughly half of them to a shortened (by roughly 3 years compared with equivalent longer nosed breeds) life, and one where they have to struggle to breathe most days, and risk overheating in even relatively mild warm weather.

Isn’t the problem from puppy-farmers and poor breeders?

Partly, yes – no question about that. Puppy farmers will breed from dogs that respectable breeders wouldn’t dare put in pup, and so their offspring will be even worse affected than average. This is the point that the Kennel Club makes; however, the KC must take some responsibility too. The breed standards are part of the problem, and could easily be part of the solution, but at the moment the KC seem to want to have their cake and eat it: they are advocating not breeding from dogs with significant BOAS (which is great!) but the breed standard is still for what, in evolutionary terms, is a very extreme brachycephalic conformation. Unfortunately, you cannot separate the two issues – they are inextricably interlinked.

So should I buy a French Bulldog puppy?

If the dog suits you and your family, and has come from a respectable and reasonable background, then there’s no reason not to. However, I would strongly recommend that you make sure you have insurance or sufficient funding for surgery, as there’s a relatively high chance that your dog will need airway surgery at some time in their life. There’s a reason insurance premiums are so high – the insurance companies know that there’s a good chance that they’ll have to pay out! I would also advise against breeding French Bulldogs unless you REALLY know what you’re doing – they often get into difficulty around whelping time, because again of the puppies’ huge heads.

That said, I would also recommend looking to rehome – mongrels and crossbreeds are often healthier than many purebred dogs, are usually cheaper to insure as well, and are massively overrepresented in animal shelters and rehoming centres. Don’t they deserve a chance too?

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