With the spotlight about to shine once again on dog breeds in the show ring, we are talking about one of the biggest health issues affecting flat faced dogs today – brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (also known as BOAS).
TV vet Emma Milne has recently launched a campaign to encourage more vets to speak out about the condition and hopefully bring about change so that future generations don’t have to suffer. We spoke with her to find out more.
Hi Emma! Thanks for your time today.
You've just launched a new website, vetsagainstbrachycephalism.com, for the veterinary profession. Can you tell us a bit about the site please?
In 2016 I went to a conference in Sweden about brachycephaly and it was absolutely shocking. Much more depressing than I imagined and things are getting worse, not better.
People who don’t like what I say about pedigree problems often tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m not a specialist. I decided, after speaking to one of the brilliant specialists at that conference, that I would gather a list of names of veterinary specialists who felt that it was unacceptable on welfare grounds to continue breeding these animals.
This turned into an absolute mission, to be honest, and then a colleague reminded me about the Vets Against Docking website I made when we were battling that and it seemed like a much better way to go about it.
We can have translations for people to read in different countries and with social media spread, I hope we’ll get vets from all over the world.
We have 49 countries represented already so it’s absolutely brilliant. I’d like policymakers and vet associations all over the world to be able to use it as a show of truly expert opinion when it comes to making laws.
Breed standards are such a cause of suffering and extreme brachycephaly epitomises that.
What is brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) and why is it important for dog owners or potential owners to know about?
BOAS is a collection of problems that brachycephalic animals have.
These include narrow nostrils, excessive soft tissue in the mouth and throat, everted saccules in the larynx and a very narrow trachea or windpipe compared to animals of similar sizes.
Dogs also have a compromised ability to cool themselves because they miss a large part of the inside of the nose that does this.
This means these animals are very prone to heat stroke and collapse. There are of course varying degrees of severity but the worst affected literally struggle to breathe their whole lives. There are many videos that circulate on social media of bulldogs and pugs falling asleep sitting up or with hollow toys wedged in their mouths while they sleep.
These videos are shared as cute and funny but the devastating truth is that these animals can only keep their airways open by staying upright or wedging their mouths open. It’s appalling. To be honest, the airways are the worst part, but these animals suffer a multitude of problems like eye damage, skinfold issues and spinal problems as well.
Your website focuses on uniting the veterinary profession. Overall, do you feel the profession has done enough to date?
I actually think that most vets are fairly powerless in stopping demand.
Very few owners come to us before they get an animal and the huge surge in popularity of these dogs shows that education is simply not working yet.
By the time we see the puppy, the family are in love and you can’t blame the owner for being duped into buying a dog believing they are healthy because that what the breed club said.
A recent study showed that people spend on average about twenty minutes choosing a dog. It’s madness. So many owners are heartbroken when they discover the health issues the animals have but it’s too late.
Practices like Vally Vets who have made clear position statements are excellent I think and I hope more practices will follow suit.
We need to stop facilitating artificial insemination and c-sections for these dogs. Breeds that can’t even reproduce unaided should have serious ethical questions raised about them. I hope the website will give a voice to the thousands of vets who, like me, feel that breeding for extreme brachycephaly is certainly unacceptable.
Under what circumstances do you think real change will come about for the breeds affected?
I genuinely think that real change will only come if we stop breeding for this conformation. We have changed these breeds beyond recognition in the last 80 years and Persian cats have changed hugely even since the 1960s and 70s.
Pictured above, French Bulldogs in the 1950s
How long do you think it will take to see real change if change is allowed to happen?
We can change these animals but people have to accept that this extreme modern look is not compatible with a life worth living. I salute all the vets trying to work with the breeders and clubs but in my opinion, it will take way too long.
How many more generations of animals will have to suffer to find a muzzle length acceptable to both parties and is that even possible?
The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals and the DACH country laws, like Qualzucht (torture breeding), should be used to start to outlaw breeders choosing these extremes.
The UK is way behind when it comes to this and welfare is hugely at stake here.
If we do nothing, what’s the endpoint for the short-nosed breeds affected by BOAS?
The most recent data coming out of the Cambridge BOAS study suggests that over 70% of pugs aged three-seven years are clinically affected by BOAS.
This means that more than two-thirds of these animals are in some degree of respiratory distress every day of their life. Add to this the huge corneal ulcer rates in these dogs and it is clear that the breed is in big trouble. Around 80% of French Bulldogs are born by c-section. The incidence of severe heart defects is rising in Bulldogs.
If vets stopped treating extremely brachycephalic animals they would disappear within a few generations because they are only hanging on through our intervention at the moment, including their reproduction.
In many countries now, insurance companies won’t pay for BOAS related surgery because it is so linked to the breed and such a huge problem. It’s clearly a congenital disease whether the inheritance has been proved or not.
The breed standards dictate that conformation so why should insurers pay for it? Extreme brachycephaly must stop or the animals will simply suffer more and eventually become unsaveable.
Do you hope that by raising awareness to breeds affected by BOAS that it will shine a light on the other problems you mention, such as the fact human intervention really is the only thing keeping certain breeds going?
I think brachycephaly is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to breed related issues.
I’ve totally re-written my breed health book and it (‘Picking a Pedigree? How to Choose a Healthy Puppy or Kitten’) will be out this year. It’s ten years since the first one and things have got worse, not better.
The problems facing brachycephalic animals are enormous, but we have to start looking at what we’ve done to other breeds affected by extremes of conformation and inherited disease.
I stand by my assertion that breed standards based on looks alone are one of the biggest causes of unnecessary suffering in dogs and cats in the western world.
Why do you think issues such as artificial insemination and c-sectioning have not been addressed before to the same extent?
I think c-sections and reproductive help has been talked about a fair amount but as with the other issues they are becoming more highlighted by the popularity of the breeds and the sheer numbers involved.
Also, I think they fly under the radar a bit because of the few ‘brachy friendly’ practices that are doing the majority of the work and reaping the rewards.
What should veterinary professionals and readers do if they want to join your campaign?
The website is there for vets, nurses and related professionals like vet students and welfare scientists to sign up to. We are also adding logos of organisations and practices who want to sign up as a whole.
As for members of the public, they can really help by encouraging their own vets, practices and veterinary associations to sign up. It’s been wonderful watching the names come in from all over the world in unity and I hope to see it only gather strength as time goes by.