Saturday, February 17, 2018

Veterinarians are Responsible for the Welfare of Flat-Faced Dogs

Note: this post was originally published on the Dog International Blog.

What can we do about the welfare problem of flat-faced dogs?

The health problems associated with brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs are no secret. Dogs bred to have ultra-shortened muzzles often have significant breathing problems, dental problems, bulging eyes prone to injury, and skin disease from deep facial wrinkles. The welfare problem of brachycephalic dogs has been covered before, including here, here, here, and here. The solution is simple: breed dogs with longer muzzles and wider nostrils. They can still have their distinct breed look, but with a real muzzle instead of a flat face. And yet the word isn’t getting out, and dogs with extremely flat faces are still popular with breeders and dog owners. Some of the most common brachycephalic breeds in question are the English bulldog, French bulldog, pug, Boston terrier, Pekingese, boxer, Shi Tzu and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

What can be done? What tools do those concerned with the welfare of breeding for extremely flat faces have to convince breeders to breed more moderate animals? What tools do we have to help the general public—the ones who don’t seek out news stories about the welfare of different dog breeds—to find breeders who produce more moderate dogs? As a veterinarian, I really want my profession to be part of the solution to this problem. In veterinary school, I was taught that part of the veterinarian’s job is to be an advocate for the animal. The owner may be the one who pays the bills, but it’s the animal who is the patient, and a good vet should speak up for the animal even when what she has to say is not what the owner wants to hear. However, I also learned that veterinarians, at least in the U.S., are extremely averse to conflict. We may be told to advocate for the animal, but we are trained not to upset the client. This isn’t just about money. If you upset your client too much, they will take their animal away, and your chance to help the animal will be lost. It’s a fine line, but not one that veterinarians are trained to balance. In my experience, much of our training plays lip service to the idea of standing up for the animal while demonstrating a strict policy of non-interference in a client’s decisions about what kind of dog to acquire.

A new policy about brachycephalics from the British Veterinary Association

French bulldog – 2014 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
French bulldog – 2014 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
By Pets Adviser from Brooklyn, USA (2014 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Things are a little different on the far side of the pond from the U.S., however. In the U.K., the British Veterinary Association (BVA) recently published a new policy statement about brachycephalic dogs. It is a quite forward-thinking document, taking a multi-pronged approach to the problem.

The document begins with CT scans of a brachycephalic and a normal dog, showing the dramatic difference in skull shape. Even their brains are differently shaped! It continues with a policy position, which contains a list of goals beginning with “ensuring healthier future generations of dogs.” It describes an action plan, including campaigning in the media and a ten-point plan for veterinary practices to address engagement with owners of brachycephalic dogs. It concludes with a list of resources for those who want to know or do more.

This is not a document that will shake the foundations of British veterinary medicine. Its description of the health problems with brachycephalic dogs is based on solid evidence, and is not phrased in inflammatory fashion. Its goals are all positive, focused on education and research. Importantly, however, it provides veterinarians with guidance and resources on how to engage with prospective pet owners on the health problems with brachycephalic dogs. And it takes a strong stance: extremely flat faces in dogs aren’t healthy, and we should be moving away from them.

A weak policy from the American Veterinary Medical Association

Contrast the BVA’s policy to the approach taken by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which recently passed a three-sentence position statement related to inherited disorders that does not even go so far as to mention brachycephalic dogs specifically. The AVMA’s animal welfare committee had initially proposed a slightly stronger policy that did specifically mention brachycephalics, along with other conditions, but this phrasing was seen as overly controversial. It was particularly opposed by the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, the Bulldog Club of America, and the American Kennel Club. The final policy phrasing names no specific disorders, targeting only “genetic and inherited disorders” generally.

In failing to call out specific problems, the AVMA missed a chance to make the point that extreme brachycephaly is a disorder. The general public often perceives extremely flat-faced animals as normal, and as a result continue to purchase them without recognizing the numerous health problems these dogs face. Simply framing extreme brachycephaly as a disorder is a powerful tool to changing this perception.

The AVMA policy also fails to provide specific guidance to veterinarians. The policy encourages veterinarians to educate themselves, breeders, and owners “on the responsibilities involved with breeding and selecting companion animals.” Compare this to the BVA’s ten-point plan for veterinarians, with guidance on how to interact with owners during pre-purchase examinations, to breeders considering breeding an affected dog, recommendations of specific tests for assessing the health of dogs from brachycephalic breeds, and the provision of resources for veterinarians, such as health surveillance programs for gathering data on the health of brachycephalic animals, a #BreedToBreathe video, and infographics for social media. U.S. veterinarians receive little guidance in veterinary school about how to communicate with clients over difficult topics such as these. Providing resources to help them grapple with the problem in practice is key.

Who are veterinarians afraid of?

The AVMA’s approach to the brachycephalic welfare problem falls far short of the BVA’s. Why didn’t the AVMA at least pass a stronger policy statement, even if providing real guidance to U.S. veterinarians was not on the table? Who are they afraid of?

Note that, according to the news release about the policy statement in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, complaints about the original proposed policy that identified brachycephaly as a disorder came from clubs of breeders of brachycephalic dogs (the Bulldog Club of America and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club) and the umbrella club for many U.S. breed-specific clubs, the American Kennel Club (AKC).

I can’t speak for these clubs, but my understanding is that their concerns are two-fold: first, that if dogs such as bulldogs are bred to have more defined muzzles, the unique character of the bulldog breed will be lost; and second, that if public opinion turns against brachycephalic breeds, these breeds may actually be banned. The second fear is not as far-fetched as you may think, given the existence of a petition to ban bulldogs and pugs in the U.K. The U.K. government does have a history of banning dog breeds that it considers “dangerous” and ear cropping and tail docking are banned in England and Wales for welfare reasons. I can’t predict if this current petition might have teeth, but history suggests it might. For what it’s worth, I believe entirely banning flat-faced breeds goes too far.

However, in no way do I believe that breeding bulldogs, pugs, and other brachycephalic breeds to have a more defined muzzle goes too far! The extreme flatness of these dogs’ faces is a recent phenomenon—look at pictures of French bulldogs from fifty or a hundred years ago and you’ll see a dog with a muzzle who still looks uniquely Frenchie. I wager it is in the show ring that a truly flat face—the kind where the muzzle is flat beneath the eyes, almost as flat as a human’s—is prized. The pet owner is much less likely to find dogs with a bit more muzzle unattractive or to feel that they don’t resemble the breed to which they belong.

The AVMA should take a stronger stance on brachycephalic dogs

Finding the right wording in position statements like these is difficult, and alienating the very people you want to convince is an ever present danger. However, I believe the AVMA’s stance is unnecessarily watered down. Surely veterinarians can take the position that health problems due to breeding for extreme body shapes are something to work against. It must be possible to spread the word that ultra-flat faces are harmful to dogs, and that moderation in muzzle length won’t destroy the unique characteristics of a beloved breed. But we do have to try harder to get that message out there, and U.S. veterinarians are lacking strong leadership bringing us forward. How can we help to fix these breeds? One step is a new policy from the AVMA, providing real guidance to the veterinarians on the front lines about how to talk to the owners and breeders of brachycephalic dogs. The Veterinarian’s Oath includes a promise to work for the protection of animal health and welfare, and prevention and relief of animal suffering. Extreme flat faces cause life-long suffering in animals who need a longer muzzle in order to breathe properly, and veterinarians have a responsibility to take action to prevent that suffering.

Extreme flat faces cause lifelong suffering. It’s time for the AVMA to take a stronger stance on breeding for flat faces.
Extreme flat faces cause lifelong suffering. It’s time for the AVMA to take a stronger stance on breeding for flat faces.


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