Leading Soft Tissue Specialist Dr. Laurent Findji responds to BVA warning against flat-faced dogs
I love brachycephalic dogs. They have such great personalities and characters. I just feel sorry because, as a human, I feel responsible for their struggling.
By Dr. Laurent Findji
Few dog lovers would not agree that brachycephalic dogs are incredibly cute. This is both their bliss and their curse. Humans are wired to find animals with a large head, flat face and large eyes cute and attractive. This is what drives our reaction towards babies, puppies, kittens and any other young animal. This is why animation artists from any studio design the characters they want the audience to like with large heads, small noses and wide eyes. Open any manga and you will realise that this is the case. Stephen Jay Gould’s A biological homage to Mickey Mouse, and a couple of Konrad Lorenz’s articles are good reads for more on this phenomenon.
“Humans are wired to find animals with a large head, flat face and large eyes cute and attractive…”
This natural, instinctive drive towards large flat faces have made brachycephalic dogs incredibly popular, and for years, the shorter their nose, the more sought after they would be. This led breeders to drive the genetic selection towards shorter and shorter noses, initially unaware of the health consequences this would have. Unfortunately, this genetic selection only acted on the skeleton of these dogs which, in addition to creating skeletal malformation and issues, left them with too large a “suit” for their bodies: brachycephalic dogs still have the amount of soft tissues (skin, muscles, etc.) of a non-brachycephalic dog of similar size, and these soft tissues have to fit on their compacted skeleton.
What cannot be seen from the outside is that similar excesses of soft tissues exist inside their body, causing the disease referred to as Brachycephalic Syndrome. A much better understanding of this syndrome has been reached over the last few years. What was thought to be a purely respiratory disease is now known to be a much broader condition, which is why I prefer to refer to it simply as “brachycephalic syndrome” rather than the more widely used “brachycephalic airway syndrome” or “brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS)”, which tend to suggest that the disease is only respiratory.
This better understanding has allowed the development of better treatments, including improved surgical techniques, to help affected dogs. We are today treating them better than ever, with better results than ever, but progress can still be made and it is unreasonable to think that we could ever make these dogs completely “normal”, as in having similar respiratory and digestive functions to non-brachycephalic dogs. The list of breed-related diseases is indeed long in these dogs, and most are a direct consequence of their compacted skeleton and redundant soft tissues. Many of these conditions and malformations can be markedly improved but rarely entirely cured or corrected. This is what led veterinary professionals to try to reverse the trend towards shorter noses in brachycephalic breeds; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
“We are today treating them better than ever, with better results than ever, but progress can still be made and it is unreasonable to think that we could ever make these dogs completely ‘normal'”
Unfortunately, several studies have shown that what many breeders, owners and even veterinarians consider as “normal” for brachycephalic breeds is already clearly abnormal from a physiological point of view. In other words, people have been led to believe that a bulldog or pug snoring for England, unable to exercise for more than a few minutes, struggling in hot weather or even regularly collapsing or regurgitating every few meals is normal. It is, unfortunately, common, but it does not make it normal, from a medical point of view. Many of these dogs struggle to stay alive.
As a surgeon, I have been sensitised early to the issue of brachycephalic dogs. I was trained as a specialist in Paris, where the number of French bulldogs rocketed during my years of training. We needed to improve fast on their treatment and our hospital then produced a number of the milestone studies which increased our understanding and ability to treat brachycephalic syndrome.
“Since that time, I have been convinced that the fight to help these dogs would take place on two fronts: on one hand helping the dogs affected with the syndrome now, by improving available treatments and outcomes, and on the other hand increasing the awareness of the syndrome with veterinarians and owners”
I cannot recollect how many times I have lectured on this syndrome, hoping to help my colleagues get a better grasp of what it is and of the role we have to play, in treating it today, and making it a disease of the past tomorrow. This better understanding of veterinary professionals would in turn increase the awareness of the general population, which is the prerequisite to increase the number of dogs receiving treatment, but also to drive a reverse in the trend of seeking shorter and shorter noses. Realistically, the better incentive for breeders to produce dogs with less marked brachycephalic features worldwide will be a clear change in the public demand.
I love brachycephalic dogs. They have such great personalities and characters. I just feel sorry for many of those presented to me for treatment because, as a human, I feel responsible for their struggling. As much as I like treating them and see them feel better for that, I would love to never have to operate on another one. Ever. So I’ll keep on sawing hard this branch I am sitting on.