The “fashionable” appeal of specially-bred small dogs has experts concerned about an epidemic of canine health problems.
A surge in popularity of breeds such as pugs and British bulldogs has been linked to the growing popularity of smaller houses and apartments.
University of Sydney research published this week in the journal Canine Genetics and Epidemiology sounded the alarm about the health problems set to boom due to increasing demand for canines with short, wide heads, known as brachycephalic dogs.
Dr Julia Crawford from the Australian Veterinary Association said a variety of dog breeds experience serious health issues related to breeding practices, such as the breathing difficulty of pugs, the fragile knees of poodles and the brain problems of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
She said although she understood the appeal of small pedigree breeds of dog, she was concerned about the consequences.
In her 37 years as a vet, Dr Crawford has seen various breeds of dog rise and fall in popularity.
“There’s always been fashion trends in dogs but the trouble is it attracts a lot of breeders, some of whom are really good, but some who are probably not registered, doing it for profit, and not looking out for the health aspects of the animal,” she said.
According to Dr Crawford, the health difficulties faced by small dogs vary depending on the breed and how reputable the breeder is. She encouraged aspiring pet owners to do their research first.
“There are a lot of problems related to squishy-faced dogs,” Dr Crawford said, noting their squashed noses can lead to respiratory problems and difficulty in panting enough to stay cool in hot conditions.
According to the RSPCA, pugs suffer Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome (BAOS), caused by their narrow nostril openings being obstructed by extra tissue that hangs down into their airways.
BAOS can be likened to a permanent asthma attack, with afflicted dogs unable to take even moderate amounts of exercise, suffering disrupted sleep and prone to potentially fatal heat stroke.
“Humans tend to normalise things and say ‘pugs always snore funny’, but they don’t have to and we can breed them differently,” Dr Crawford said.
Like the pug, the Boston terrier is a brachycephalic dog type, a group that Dr Crawford said suffers problems not only in breathing, but also in their spines due to a deformity known as hemivertebrae.
The condition, which is associated with the Boston terrier’s corkscrew tails, can result in impaired movement, a lack of coordination, and even paralysis.
Another brachycephalic dog type, British Bulldogs suffer the above issues but are also particularly prone to a structural deformity called chondrodysplasia, which predisposes them to bone and joint problems, particularly in the hip.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
According to Dr Crawford, this breed faces a number of serious problems, including heart issues and a genetic condition called Syringomyelia, which involves fluid-filled cavities developing within the spinal cord near the brain.
Syringomyelia is sometimes known as “neck scratcher’s disease”, because it often prompts the animal to scratch in the air near the neck.
Dr Crawford said poodle breeds are doing better than in the past thanks to genetic testing, but that health problems include trouble with vision (optic nerve hypoplasia and progressive retinal atrophy) as well as patellar luxation, which relates to the poodle’s unusually-shaped legs suffering knee dislocations.