Short Muzzled Dogs Under Review by Vets

Organisers of Royal Veterinary College’s conference, Building Better Brachycephalics 2013, sought the opinions of key stakeholders on the impact of breeding on the health and welfare of short-muzzled dogs

A one-day conference, held at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), on Monday 11 November was attended by fifty key professional stakeholders in dog breeding. These individuals from the breeding industry, the veterinary profession, welfare charities and scientific community examined issues relating to the impact of breeding on the welfare of brachycephalic (short-muzzled) dogs. Many of these dogs suffer from conditions including eye, skin and breathing problems.

“We hope findings of this event will benefit brachycephalic dogs’ welfare, through potential avenues such as quantitative limits being introduced into breed standards, breed judges penalising unhealthy conformations in the show-ring, and breeders actively selecting for healthier dogs,” said Dr Rowena Packer, Research Assistant at the RVC and conference co-organiser.

“We also need to raise awareness amongst veterinarians providing advice to brachycephalic dog owners and breeders so they can recognise that their dogs’ breathing and eye problems require veterinary attention.”

Throughout the conference, which was funded by ‘Sparking Impact’ funds from the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) the research team surveyed the audience on key questions regarding brachycephalic health. They displayed the audience’s answers in real time to facilitate increased engagement and discussion. The team tackled difficult issues relating to breeding in order to extract real, evidence-based solutions to improve dog welfare.

“There was general agreement that the dog buying public need to put dog health above appearance, whether choosing pure- or cross-bred dogs. Our desire for ever more baby-like flat faces and larger eyes is fuelling welfare problems in the very animals we love,” commented Dr Charlotte Burn, Lecturer in Animal Welfare at the RVC.

The conference identified those most responsible for the future welfare of Brachycephalic dogs; dog buyers, the veterinary profession and the Kennel Club. Other areas of discussion and consultation were:

Almost a third felt that some breeds were so badly affected that, if their health did not dramatically improve, they should be banned after 10 years; conversely, an equivalent proportion believed that the problems were not serious enough to ever consider banning breeds at all.

Out-crossing (the practice of crossing different breeds together to reduce genetic disease risk) was more acceptable, with 81% of the audience considering it a useful option to save breeds that lack sufficient healthy dogs to improve breed health without new blood.

To help combat the breathing and eye disorders discussed, delegates voted on changing dog breed standards, the formal descriptions of the ‘ideal’ dog for each breed. Around two-thirds (65%) of delegates voted that breed standards should include limits to how short muzzles can be and how large eyes can be.

When asked ‘how short is too short’ for a dog’s muzzle in terms of dog welfare, almost a third voted for a muzzle 30% the length of the cranium (head), the average muzzle length of a Boxer; nearly as many voted for a longer muzzle at two-fifths the head length, like a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Yet, some delegates remained confident that dogs with shorter muzzle lengths of a fifth (17%), or even less than a tenth of head length (10%), also had acceptable welfare.

Most delegates (83%) believed that no breed standards should demand exposed eye whites, because of the association with ulceration, and around half also favoured removing requirements for over-nose wrinkles and thick necks.

“Whilst breeding dogs responsibly with healthier conformations is clearly paramount, this research can also be applied to educate the dog-buying public on how the level of risk for these welfare-relevant diseases relates to the brachycephalic head shape,’’ commented Dr Hendricks, Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Dermatology at the RVC. “It is hoped that this will reduce the demand for dogs that may be appealing but will almost inevitably suffer with breathing problems.”

The conference was opened by James Kirkwood, Chief executive of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW), and research results were complemented by presentations from experts in the field including soft tissue surgeon Dr Mickey Tivers (Cave Veterinary Specialists) and ophthalmologist Dr David Williams (University of Cambridge).

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