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Worrying numbers of "short-nosed" dog owners do not believe their pets to have breathing problems, despite observing severe clinical signs

10 May 2012

  • New research finds that breeds such as Pugs, Bulldogs, Pekingese and French Bulldogs may be suffering because owners dismiss chronic clinical signs as ‘normal’
  • 58% of surveyed owners state that their dogs do not have breathing problems, despite over two thirds showing difficulties during exercise 

Owners of certain popular “short-nosed” dog breeds, including Pugs, Bulldogs, Pekingese and French Bulldogs, are unknowingly putting their pets’ welfare at risk and not seeking essential treatment because they consider their pets’ signs of breathing difficulties to be ‘normal’ for that breed – so reveals a new study from the Royal Veterinary College, published on Thursday 10 May 2012 by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) in their journal Animal Welfare. Other affected breeds in the study included the Boston Terrier, Dogue de Bordeaux, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and short-nosed crossbreeds.

As a result of intense selection for short muzzles, ‘brachycephalic’ dogs, such as Pugs, have a compressed upper jaw, which results in the soft tissue being crammed within the skull. These dogs are at high risk of developing brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS), with clinical signs including noisy and laboured breathing, breathing difficulties even on short walks, overheating, gagging and choking. These difficulties can prevent affected dogs from being able to enjoy the simple pleasures in a dog’s life such as exercise, play, food and sleep. In severe cases dogs can experience almost continuous breathing difficulties and physically collapse due to lack of oxygen. Clinical signs often get worse over time if they are left untreated.

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College surveyed the owners of 285 dogs referred to the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals over the course of five months for all clinical services. A total of 31 dogs affected by BOAS were identified, and their owners’ surveyed. The researchers found the marked disparity between owners’ reports of severe clinical signs and their perceived lack of a ‘breathing problem’ to be of great concern.

All affected dogs were reported by their owners to ‘snore’ (some even when awake), compared with less than 2% of unaffected dogs. Over two thirds of affected dogs were also reported to show breathing difficulties during exercise on a daily basis. Yet, 58% of owners of affected dogs stated that their dog did not currently have, or have a history of, breathing problems, despite reporting high frequency and severe clinical signs consistent with BOAS. This suggests that most owners of dogs with BOAS do not recognise the problem, and do not seek veterinary advice to help alleviate welfare issues associated with the condition.

Spontaneous comments were also provided by several owners of affected animals who declared that their pet did not suffer from breathing problems. These included “No to breathing problem – other than being  a Bulldog” and “(No,) but he is a Pug!”.

Brachycephalic dogs are increasing in popularity, with Kennel Club registrations of the Pug alone increasing from 3,500 to nearly 6,000 per year between 2007 and 2010.

Rowena Packer from the Royal Veterinary College, who carried out the research, said: “Our study clearly shows that owners of brachycephalic dogs often dismiss the signs of this potentially severe breathing disorder as normal and are prepared to tolerate a high degree of respiratory compromise in their pets before seeking help. It may require a particularly acute attack, such as the dog losing consciousness, for owners to perceive a problem.”

Dr Charlotte Burn, who led the research, said “Short noses may make dogs look cute and human-like, but the frequent association with breathing difficulties means that owners need to be aware that this appearance can come with a serious cost to the animal.”

“'Just because a problem is common, that doesn't make it less of a problem for the individuals who suffer it.”

Miss Packer said “We would urge dog owners not to simply dismiss abnormal breathing sounds and breathing difficulties as ‘normal’, and instead seek professional help if they notice any signs, as there may be things that can be done in both the short and long term to provide a better a quality of life for affected dogs.”

“Without serious appreciation of the clinical signs of BOAS, affected dogs may be left untreated to suffer for the rest of their lives, may continue to be used in breeding programmes, and efforts to reduce the number of dogs affected by this condition may be hampered.”

James Kirkwood, Chief Executive and Scientific Director of UFAW, which publishes Animal Welfare, commented “It is likely that many other genetic welfare problems, caused by selectively breeding for particular physical characteristics, are also perceived by pet owners as ‘normal’. This could be a major constraint to working towards eliminating the problems since pet owners, through their pet-buying decisions for example, can pressure changes in breeding practices that would improve the health and welfare of pets. Lack of information has been a problem for pet owners and UFAW has addressed this by developing a web-based information resource that describes genetic conditions and their welfare consequences on a breed by breed basis. It can be seen at Genetic welfare problems of companion animals.

Notes for editors

  • The Royal Veterinary College is the UK's first and largest veterinary school and a constituent College of the University of London. It also provides support for veterinary and related professions through its three referral hospitals, diagnostic services and continuing professional development courses. www.rvc.ac.uk
  • The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) is an internationally recognised, independent scientific and educational animal welfare charity. It works to improve knowledge and understanding of animals’ needs in order to achieve high standards of welfare for farm, companion, research, captive wild animals and those with which we interact in the wild. UFAW improves animal welfare worldwide through its programme of awards, grants and scholarships; by educational initiatives, especially at university and college level; by providing information in books, videos, reports and in its scientific journal Animal Welfare; by providing expert advice to governments and others, including for legislation and ‘best practice’ guidelines and codes; and by working with animal keepers, scientists, vets, lawyers and all those who care about animals. www.ufaw.org.uk

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