Wednesday 26 June 2019

Pugs, for their own sake, should go out of fashion

Pugs are cute, but they suffer from many health problems
Pugs are cute, but they suffer from many health problems

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Paddy the Pug gazed at me, his head bobbing up and down as he panted. He hadn't stopped panting since walking into the consulting room ten minutes previously. He just stood in one spot, panting. Meanwhile, his housemate, Meg the Collie, sniffed around the room, looking around in an interested way. The contrast was remarkable: one dog - the pug - was standing still, concentrating on noisily breathing through his mouth. The other dog - the Collie - was walking around normally, breathing through her nose so quietly that the sound was barely audible.

I asked his owner if Paddy ever stopped panting, and the answer was immediate: only when he was asleep. His owner didn't seem surprised at this: she was used to seeing Paddy panting - it's just what he had always done.

There was nothing "wrong" with Paddy: he is a normal Pug, although perhaps his features are more exaggerated than some. Pugs were brought from China to Europe in the sixteenth century, and picture show that these dogs were very different to the modern version. The shape of a Pug has been modified over the past century by human breeders who have gradually distorted their physical features to make them "cuter". As a result, Paddy's nose is so flattened and squashed that he can't breathe through it easily. To get enough breath to remain comfortable, Paddy has to open his mouth and pant. If you can imagine having a blocked nose all the time: that's what it must be like.

Meg, meanwhile, has the naturally shaped nose of a dog: breeders have not changed the shape of Collies' heads. They are still the way they have evolved, ideal for the function of running around hillsides herding sheep. Collies can breath easily and freely through their noses: they only pant when they are exercising or when they are overheating.

Most people are aware that Pugs' features are distorted, but paradoxically, it's partly what's so appealing. To understand this, you need to go back to looking at how the psychology of humans has evolved. We have developed an innate tendency to feel protective when we see infantile facial features: these prompt us to provide protective care to baby and toddler humans, increasing the survival rate of the most vulnerable of our species. Psychologists have discovered an interesting fact: this protective urge crosses the species barrier, so that when we see animal faces that look like human babies, we are filled with affection and an urge to care for the individuals. Pugs have a round face, short nose and circular eyes. While some parents might feel incensed to have their beautiful babies compared with a small dog, the fact is that Pugs stimulate the same caring response as human babies.

It's not just Pugs that have this effect: the dog breeds that are rising most rapidly in popularity are the so-called "brachycephalic" or short-nosed dogs. Some statistics from UK Kennel Club registrations prove the point: the number of pugs has increased from 1675 in 2004 to 8071 in 2013, and French bulldogs ( with a similar appearance) rose from 350 to 6990 in the same period.

This increase in popularity would not matter if the desirable breeds were healthy, but the opposite is the case. The life expectancy of extreme brachycephalic breeds is four years shorter than longer nosed dogs, living on average to be only nine years old instead of nearly thirteen. It's more than just noisy breathing: they are also prone to heart valve disease, collapsing windpipes and other internal disorders.

People don't realise these facts when they get a puppy: they just want a cute little dog. Breeders who are selling puppies clearly don't have an interest in telling the hard truth about the breed. In fact, they may not even be fully aware of the issues themselves. One recent study found that around half of the owners of short-nosed dogs were completely unaware of their health complications.

So what can be done to help dogs like Paddy who struggle to breathe normally? For the individual dogs, owners need to be aware of what can go wrong. They should learn the signs of discomfort, and take particular care to ensure that their dogs are not over-stressed when exercising or when in a warm place. They should also discuss their pet's health in detail with their vets during every annual health check. There are extreme cases where radical surgery, such as a tracheotomy, may be needed to free a dog from the struggle and allow it to breathe in comfort.

For the longer term future, it would be better if dogs like Paddy weren't born in the first place. Arguably, the Pug breed could be banned, but this is unlikely. Another possibility would be that breeders of dogs that predictably develop severe health issues could be prosecuted under the Animal Health and Welfare Act for cruelty to animals. The most likely answer is probably simpler: Pugs and other ultra-short nosed dogs may go out of fashion as more and more people become aware of their health issues. A recent academic study showed that dog breed choice owed more to fashion than any other factor. The best thing that could happen to Pugs and these other unhealthy breeds would be that, simply, they may go out of fashion.

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