Why are dog breeds with innate diseases popular?

Why are dog breeds with innate diseases popular?
Flat-faced dogs, such as French and English Bulldogs, are extremely popular despite suffering from severe innate diseases. Hungarian researchers have attempted to uncover the explanation for this paradox. In the end, they concluded that although enthusiasts of flat-faced dogs are aware of the health issues and strive to provide the best for their dogs, they are likely to normalize health problems.

The French and English Bulldogs are among the most popular breeds in both the United States and Europe, but Pugs and Boston Terriers also have a significant fan base. This is surprising considering the several innate health problems these breeds face. At least half of them struggle with breathing difficulties, they frequently have eye problems, and over eighty percent of them require C-sections during delivery. Due to their health issues, flat-faced dogs typically live three to four years less than what would be expected based on their body size.

The life expectancy of French Bulldogs is only around four and a half years. If these breeds have so many problems, what could be causing their popularity?

""Previously, we observed that flat-faced breeds are more inclined to form eye contact with humans. We assumed that this trait is appealing to owners. We also considered the possibility that the enthusiasts of these dogs might not be aware of the innate health issues," - said Zsófia Bognár, PhD student at the Department of Ethology, ELTE Eötvös Loránd University, and the lead author of the study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science

The researchers presented 25 pairs of photos of dogs looking into the camera and looking away, in an online survey. Furthermore, they assessed the respondents' personality traits, whether they liked flat-faced dogs, and whether they were aware of their health problems. A total of 1156 participants took part in the survey. Some results contradicted the researchers' expectations. It turned out that those who had a positive attitude towards flat-faced breeds randomly selected among the images. This finding suggests that despite the inclination of these dogs to form eye contact, it likely does not play a role in their popularity. On the other hand, those who preferred the photos of dogs looking into the camera were those who were sociable, easily made friends, and were capable of putting themselves in the position and perspective of others.

Interestingly, the respondents who liked flat-faced dogs were the most aware of the health problems. Overall, 99 percent of the respondents associated flat-faced breeds with breathing difficulties, 90 percent with dystocia, 61 percent with corneal ulceration, and only a few respondents associated them with fewer than four health problems. So, the health issues associated with flat-face are very much in public awareness.

In addition, it was also revealed that compared to the group who were neutral towards or disliked flat-faced breeds, enthusiasts of flat-faced dogs tend to be younger, have lower levels of education, and typically have no professional experience with dogs. In comparison to the neutral group, the enthusiasts are more likely to be women and have children. Compared to those who disliked flat-faced breeds, enthusiasts have higher emotional empathy, meaning they are more inclined to feel for the suffering of another living being.

"We expected that one of the main attractiveness of flat-faced dogs lies in their large eyes and that their owners would be delighted when the dogs look at them," said Eniko Kubinyi, head of the MTA-ELTE "Momentum" Companion Animal Research Group at ELTE. "However, we did not find this to be true, at least not from the photographs. It is also not true that enthusiasts of flat-faced breeds are unaware of the dogs' health problems or are insensitive to their emotions. On the other hand, it has been revealed that they are relatively inexperienced dog owners. Thus, it is most likely that they are unaware of the dogs' communication signals, may not necessarily recognize signs of pain, and likely consider health problems as normal breed characteristics. For example, a snoring and grunting Bulldog appears cute to them, rather than sick and struggling for breath." 

According to the results, therefore, even though enthusiasts of flat-faced dogs are aware of the innate health problems of these breeds, it does not discourage them from continuing to love these dogs.

"In many countries, there are awareness campaigns about the health issues of flat-faced breeds. However, the growing popularity of flat-faced dogs suggests that these campaigns are not very effective. It is clear that simply listing the health problems does not deter people from purchasing these dogs. Instead, the emphasis should be on highlighting that health issues should not be considered normal or acceptable characteristics because they often cause pain and suffering for the dogs. Dog owners need to be made aware that their choices play a significant role in shaping the health of dog breeds," said Zsófia Bognár.

Cover: Zsofia Bognar

Original paper: Bognár, Z., & Kubinyi, E. (2023). The brachycephalic paradox: The relationship between attitudes, demography, personality, health awareness, and dog-human eye contact. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 105948. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2023.105948

Funding: New National Excellence Program of the Ministry for Innovation and Technology from the source of the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund; the Hungarian Academy of Sciences via a grant to the MTA-ELTE’ Lendület/Momentum’ Companion Animal Research Group and the National Brain Programme 3.0