A solution right under our nose? Exploring health implications and public demand for brachycephalic ‘designer’ outcrosses

Fund

AWF Research Fund

Grant

£34,820

Research Period

2022

Area of study

Breeding for Better Welfare

Description

Investigator(s): Dr Rowena Packer, Dr Dan O'Neill, Dr Mickey Tivers

Project length: 18 months (due to start July 2023)

This project is funded by AWF, Blue Cross and RSPCA

Demand continues to rise for brachycephalic (flat-faced) dog breeds in the UK. Evidence documenting links between extreme flat-faces and the risk of severe, chronic disease (e.g. breathing and eye problems [1, 2]) has failed to lead to conformational-changes (e.g. increased muzzle length) required to protect canine welfare. Breeders continue to select for extreme show-ring standards, and puppy-buyers continue to favour extreme-brachycephalic breeds (e.g. French Bulldogs, Pugs, English Bulldogs). Educational efforts have not resulted in substantial changes to owner-attitudes [3], with normalisation of health problems pervasive [4, 5].

Alternative evidence-informed strategies to change demand are urgently needed to protect canine welfare. Leveraging the current popularity of ‘designer crossbreeds’ (intentional crosses of purebred-breeds [6]) offers one route to shifting demand towards more-moderately shaped dogs. However, the health-status and public attitudes towards brachycephalic-outcrosses are poorly understood. To-date, just one small study documented improved respiratory health in Pug-crosses (n=8) compared to purebred Pugs (n=42) [7].  

This proposal poses two questions:

  • Do brachycephalic-outcrosses exhibit improved respiratory and ‘innate’ health characteristics [8] compared to their extreme-brachycephalic parent-breed?
  • Do brachycephalic-outcrosses meet the aesthetic-preferences of people who desire extreme-brachycephalic purebreds?

These questions will be addressed by:

  • Conducting health assessments of Pug-crosses (selected based on current popularity/ availability for study) using validated respiratory assessments [9], questionnaires [5] and conformational-health metrics (e.g. skull shape, tail length/shape, skin folds) [1], to compare against existing data on purebred-Pugs
  • Conducting a large-scale, online survey of aesthetic preferences and perceptions of the health, behaviour and ethics of brachycephalic-outcrosses more broadly, in current/prospective owners of extreme-brachycephalic purebreds

References  
1. Packer, R.M.A., et al., Impact of Facial Conformation on Canine Health: Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome. PLOS ONE, 2015. 10(10): p. e0137496
2. Packer, R.M.A., A. Hendricks, and C.C. Burn, Impact of facial conformation on canine health: Corneal ulceration. PLoS ONE, 2015. 10(5): p. 1-16
3. Kenny, D.D., et al., Impact of an educational intervention on public perception of brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome in brachycephalic dogs. Veterinary Record, 2022. 190(11): p. e1430
4. Packer, R., A. Hendricks, and C. Burn, Do dog owners perceive the clinical signs related to conformational inherited disorders as' normal'for the breed? A potential constraint to improving canine welfare. Animal Welfare-The UFAW Journal, 2012. 21(1): p. 81
5. Packer, R.M.A., et al., Great expectations, inconvenient truths, and the paradoxes of the dog-owner relationship for owners of brachycephalic dogs. PLOS ONE, 2019. 14(7): p. e0219918
6. Burnett, E., et al., How much is that doodle in the window? Exploring motivations and behaviours of UK owners acquiring designer crossbreed dogs (2019-2020). Canine Medicine and Genetics, 2022. 9(1): p. 8
7. Bartels, A., et al., Brachycephalic problems of pugs relevant to animal welfare. Animal Welfare, 2015. 24(3): p. 327-333
8. Brachycephalic Working Group. Innate health in dogs. 2022 [cited 2022 July]; Available from: http://www.ukbwg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/220512-BWG-Innate-health-in-dog-populations.pdf
9. Riggs, J., et al., Validation of exercise testing and laryngeal auscultation for grading brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome in pugs, French bulldogs, and English bulldogs by using whole-body barometric plethysmography. Veterinary Surgery