Should flat-faced dogs be completely banned?
This is the peak of the dog show season: Crufts was held in Birmingham last weekend ("the biggest dog show in the world") and the St Patrick's Day dog show is happening on Friday and Saturday, 17th and 18th March.
This is the flagship event for the Irish Kennel Club, held at their show centre in Cloghran, near Dublin Airport.
I'm ambivalent about dog shows: there are positives and negatives about them.
On the one hand, dog shows can be showcases for optimal canine health. Dogs that are prime specimens for their breed are judged against one another, with the most magnificent creature winning the top prize. Dog breeders are often experts in their own breeds, understanding the need for genetic planning, including health tests and other ways to avoid problems. If you want to view breeds of pedigree dog at their absolute best, dog shows can be good places to go. You can talk to people who really know and understand their particular breed.
On the other hand, dog shows can bring out the worst in the pedigree dog breeding world. Some dog breeds have poor health, and this is sometimes disregarded in the battle for glory to have a winning dog. Sometimes the show ring can be more about the person showing the dog than the animal. The "perfect version" of the breed that wins the show can be a dog that suffers from health problems.
In recent times, the so-called brachycephalic (flat faced) dogs have been the examples of poor pedigree dog health that have been most commonly discussed. The Kennel Club's own research shows that 50% of Pugs, Bulldogs and French Bulldogs have significant breathing problems, and and that only 7-15% of them breathe like a normal, non-brachycepahlic dog. This is inextricably linked to their very flat faces.
Yet despite this, dog show organisers refuse to change the breed standards in ways that would help this problem. For example, the Kennel Club in the UK refuses to introduce minimum muzzle lengths: to me, this would be such an obvious way of helping dogs to breathe more easily.
I have mentioned this before in my column. While it would be illegal to grab a dog, smothering it so that it can barely breathe, people are allowed to deliberately create dogs that continually feel as if they are being smothered because of narrowed, compressed breathing passages.
Is there an answer to this problem? The fact is that it is a human-caused issue, and therefore there has to be a human-caused answer. If the powers-that-be (e.g. Kennel Clubs) refuse to tackle it by introducing moderate changes, perhaps radical answers are the only way. People are starting to talk about having certain breeds banned completely.
I would hate to see a world where there are no Pugs, French Bulldogs or Bulldogs: they are charming characters, full of personality. But if banning them was the only way to ensure that I never saw dogs choking to breathe, and never had to refer any poor animals to specialist surgeons for complex airway surgery, perhaps it needs to be considered.
Of course the practicalities of banning a breed would be complicated, but there are many areas of life where the practicalities are complicated. I've been reflecting on this, and here are some steps that could be taken.
It could be compulsory to have all puppies of specified breeds spayed or neutered before they are sold. Some breeders do this already (e.g. For some "designer breeds" to stop others competing in the market place with them). So why not do it to stop a suffering breed from reproducing itself?
This would be easy to monitor through microchipping: vets can certify that a specified, microchipped, animal has been spayed/neutered and this fact can be added to their microchip registration details.
The UK Kennel Club would be obliged to stop keeping a register of Pugs, French Bulldogs and Bulldogs. This has happened before for breeds that have been banned because they are dangerous, so there is a precedent.
Banning brachycephalic breeds would be a radical step, but if those responsible for producing these dogs refuse to take action to improve the situation, then for the sake of animal welfare, it should be considered.
Of course, the better answer would be to simply tweak the design of these breeds. It isn't difficult to do this: I have seen cross-bred pugs (e.g. with terriers) that have muzzles that are marginally longer, with breathing that is far, far easier.
All that is needed is for those in charge of these breeds to accept that this type of change is needed, and to make it happen. Everyone has to simply let go of their insistence that these breeds continue to look exactly as they currently appear.
The public has an enormous role to play in this. If people stopped wanting "cute" flat faced dogs, there will soon be far fewer being bred.
So if you are considering buying a brachycephalic dog, please think again. Choose a slightly longer-nosed version of the dog that you initially want. Your new dog will have a happier, healthier life, and you won't be contributing to the deliberate slow suffocation of thousands of dogs.