Have we overbred bulldogs?
By Joe Wilkes
I love bulldogs. I don’t own one myself, but I have lots of friends that do. In Los Angeles, where I live, they were named the most popular breed by the American Kennel Club, and I can see why. They have lots of personality, are very calm, and don’t require a lot of exercise, which makes them a good pick for apartment dwellers.
I was surprised to hear last week that Crufts, the world’s largest dog show, had taken bulldogs as well as the Westminster winner, the Pekingese, out of competition, because they had failed veterinary inspections. When I asked my bulldog-owning friends, they all said they weren’t surprised. While they loved their bulldogs, they had all endured health problems with their pets and incurred large veterinary bills.
Bulldogs have a plethora of health problems including cardiac and respiratory disease, hip dysplasia, cherry eye, and other concerns. They are extremely susceptible to heat problems, can easily drown in swimming pools or other water, and require daily cleaning of their skin folds to avoid problems.
So the question is, why are there so many problems with this breed? And the answer is as with so many breeds, we may have gone too far with the bulldog. We’ve bred certain traits in and certain traits out over generations. Many attribute the popularity of the bulldog to the fact that it has a flatter face than most dogs, giving it a more human-like expressiveness. This shorter muzzle though contributes to the breed’s respiratory problems. In other words, we’ve made them cuter but they can’t breathe.
We’ve created a breed that has such a large head that 80 percent of bulldogs have to be delivered by Caesarean section. This was likely not what nature intended. Over the years you can look at pictures of bulldogs and see how the breed has evolved or devolved into what it is today because of our breeding practices. The legs are shortened, the muzzle is shortened, the underbite has grown. And the health problems have increased.
It’s not just the bulldog. Many other breeds, especially the toy and teacup variety, have horrible medical problems that we’ve created because of the perceived worth of the animal’s appearance over its wellbeing. As a culture we are clearly prone to valuing looks over health. You only have to flip through the channels to see the stories of plastic surgery, eating disorders, and other extremes we’ll take to achieve some imagined state of perfection. And we’ve projected that urge onto our dogs.
I want to make the distinction between responsible breeding and genetic engineering of dogs as well. Every dog I’ve had since childhood has come from a breeder (although my next one will be a rescue) and I’ve loved them all. It’s understandable to want to select your dog based on breed or breed mix. Everyone has different things they look for in a dog like size or temperament, and looking at breed qualities helps us choose the dog that’s right for us. But when we breed dogs to make them more marketable and it ends up causing endless health issues and a lifetime of pain for the dog, something’s gone terribly wrong.
When you’re getting a dog there’s a difference between a breed and a brand. If you love your dog, who cares what breed it is. Dogs don’t know whether they’re in style or not. They’ll just love you no matter what. You want a great dog, not a certificate.
My colleague Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote a very thorough piece for the New York Times. You can read it here,Can the Bulldog Be Saved?