Research focus: Epidemiology

Ownership of the iconic British bulldog has doubled but the breed is particularly prone to ear infections, skin infections and obesity, according to the largest ever study of British bulldogs treated in first opinion veterinary practices.

The research, led by the Royal Veterinary College’s (RVC) VetCompass™ programme, reveals that British bulldog ownership has almost doubled from comprising 0.35% of all puppies born in 2009 to 0.60% in 2013. Sadly, however, the findings show that due to breeding trends 12.7% of British bulldogs suffer from ear infections, 8.8% from skin infections and 8.7% from obesity.

British bulldog
British bulldog (photo credit: David Mchales)

It also became apparent that there are a number of conditions that are more prevalent in British bulldogs than in other dog breeds: skin fold dermatitis (7.8%), prolapsed gland of the third eyelid or ‘cherry eye’ (6.8%), interdigital cysts (3.7%), entropion or inward turning of the eyelid (3.6%), and corneal ulceration (3.1%). Many of these issues are linked with certain desired aesthetics encouraged when breeding British bulldogs such as the wrinkly face.

Disturbingly, only 3.5% of the 1,621 British bulldogs analysed in the study were diagnosed with brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS). This suggests owners consider breathing problems such as snoring as normal for this short-muzzled breed and therefore not taking the dogs for needed check-ups with their vet.

The results of this study into the popular breed, which is regularly used in the media to advertise products that are unrelated to dogs, will support initiatives by the Kennel Club and the UK Bulldog Breed Club to improve breeding and also help owners and vets prioritise tackling the leading issues British bulldogs face.

Other key findings by the researchers include:

  • Males are more likely than females to develop skin infection, interdigital cysts, atopic dermatitis and aggression, whereas females are more likely to develop dental disease and obesity.
  • The average adult bodyweight for a British bulldog is 26kg.
  • The average lifespan of bulldogs is 7.2 years.
  • The most common causes of death are heart disease (11.8%), cancer (10.9%) and brain disorder (9.1%).

Dr Dan O’Neill, VetCompass epidemiologist at the RVC and Chairman of the Brachycephalic Working Group, said: “The UK has seen unprecedented increases in the popularity of certain short-faced breeds over the past decade. This has led to a series of well-documented welfare issues relating to how these dogs are bred and sold for the UK pet-owning market, high levels of dumping of unwanted dogs into the UK charities and health problems that are intrinsically linked to the extreme body shape of these dogs. This new study gives firm evidence for the first time on the true levels of popularity and also of disease diagnosed in the wider population of bulldogs in the UK. This information can help to move the conversation on welfare from ‘what are the issues’ to ‘how do we deal with these issues’. Reliable evidence is pivotal to good decision-making.”

Dr Rowena Packer, BBSRC Research Fellow at RVC, said: “The bulldog is an iconic breed but concerns over the health problems allegedly facing these popular dogs have mounted in the past decade. It is extremely valuable to have solid data on the health problems facing this breed, confirming a number of inherent breed predispositions that need to be tackled.

This data supports current initiatives encouraging breed reform, particularly regarding health problems inherently related to their looks, and the need for selection for healthier body shapes. For example, skin fold dermatitis was common in bulldogs and is associated with the desired wrinkled face in this breed – this calls into question the justification of this and other such breed traits that put dogs at risk of potentially avoidable disease.”

British bulldog
British bulldog (photo credit: Shirene Pickering)

Steve Dean, Chairman of the Kennel Club Charitable Trust said: “The Kennel Club has put into place a number of crucial measures over the years to monitor, protect and improve Bulldog health and to provide the many responsible breeders with the tools they need to do the same, but this paper highlights there is still work to be done. Collaborating with the RVC and supporting this research through the Kennel Club Charitable Trust provides an extensive evidence-base which enables ongoing identification of breed health-related priorities, and development of effective treatments for breed-specific health conditions and breeding resources to produce healthier puppies in the future. The paper also highlights the ongoing crisis of irresponsible breeders and uninformed puppy buyers beyond the Kennel Club’s sphere of influence which fuel many of these issues. We are continuing to work hard alongside the Bulldog breed clubs, vets and welfare organisations to tackle these challenges and reduce and ultimately eliminate these health problems; this is both a top priority for the Kennel Club and a goal shared by all those who care about the health and welfare of dogs.”

Vicky Collins-Nattrass, Breed Health Coordinator for the Bulldog Breed Council said: “The Bulldog Breed Council collects their own data from participating breeders for our own health scheme. We accept that the results reported by the VetCompass scheme are very real but point out that these relate to the wider population of bulldogs that unfortunately does not generally come under our influence. The Bulldog Breed Council are working hard  to improve breed health by attending many pet events to share education leaflets and to spread the word from experienced representatives about the importance of health testing and only breeding from healthy dogs.

“The show and exhibitor community of Bulldog owners are already onboard with this health programme. This is evident from the improvements in the Breed Watch comments collected by the Kennel Club judge but we want to see ongoing improvement in all bulldogs, both inside and outside the show-ring. It’s a hard task but we are tackling it.”

Research Reference

DAN G. O'NEILL, ALISON M. SKIPPER, JADE KADHIM, DAVID B. CHURCH, DAVE C. BRODBELT & ROWENA M.A. PACKER 2019. Disorders of Bulldogs under primary veterinary care in the UK in 2013. PLOS ONE. 

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