THE MAJORITY of delegates at a recent conference on brachycephalic breeds were in agreement that numerical thresholds should be used in breed Standards to limit muzzle length and eye size.
Such limits could be introduced to safeguard against exaggeration, increase their precision, and reduce ambiguity and room for interpretation they said.
Everyone present at the conference, entitled ‘Building Better Brachycephalics’, agreed that being brachycephalic can ‘significantly harm’ a dog’s welfare, with 47 per cent believing this was the case for most dogs of this type.
Opinion was sought throughout the meeting, and a total of 43 per cent thought that breed Standards should not use the word ‘short’ to describe muzzle length, with 49 per cent voting that it could be used but only with additional safeguarding descriptors. Three per cent thought the word could be used on its own.
The majority of those present voted that nasal folds should not be permitted in brachycephalic breed Standards at all, and 83 per cent voted that exposed sclera (eye white) should not be described in Standards because of the association with ulceration, and around half also favoured removing requirements for over-nose wrinkles and thick necks.
When delegates were asked whether they were concerned enough to consider outcrossing certain brachycephalic breeds to improve breed health, 81 per cent voted that they were.
No delegates thought that no changes were necessary, and none was concerned about compromising breed purity; three per cent were concerned it could cause further health problems.
When asked which stakeholders were most responsible for the future health and welfare of brachycephalic dogs, most votes went to dog purchasers/puppy buyers, second the veterinary profession, and third the Kennel Club.
Almost a third of those present felt that some breeds were so badly affected that, if their health did not dramatically improve they should be banned after ten years; conversely, an equivalent proportion believed that the problems were not serious enough ever to consider banning breeds at all.
The conference at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) was the culmination of four years’ work by the college’s Dr Rowena Packer, who invited all stakeholders to hear her findings. She had explored three major disease risks for brachycephalic dogs: the risks of brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS), the risks and consequences of corneal ulceration, and the infectious consequences of skin folds. Official papers from Dr Packer’s research are currently under peer review and embargoed.
More than 50 people were present, including scientists, chief vets, welfare groups, charities, breeders, representatives of the Dog Advisory Council (DAC) including chairman Prof Sheila Crispin, and the Animal Health Trust, and seven members of the KC including chairman Prof Steve Dean, health and breeder services manager Bill Lambert, veterinary advisor Nick Blayney, Crufts chief vet Dr Andreas Schemel and high-profile co-ordinator Charlotte McNamara.
In the region of 14 breed clubs were invited and those represented were the Boxer, Bulldog, French Bulldog, Griffon Bruxellois, Pug and Shih Tzu, but not the Affenpinscher, Boston Terrier, Dogue de Bordeaux, Japanese Chin and Pekingese. It is understood that representatives of the Cavalier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier were also invited but did not attend.
Part of the research included a study of 154 brachycephalic dogs, 132 of whom were KC registered; Dr Packer said she identified and recruited breeders from the KC’s list of Assured Breeders. A total of 30 of the 32 Pugs in this study were KC registered. Dogs in another study were recruited from first opinion practices, staff and student owned dogs and rescue centres.
Dr Packer, Dr Charlotte Burn and Dr Anke Hendricks, all from the RVC, revealed their evidence that increasingly short muzzles and large eyes heighten the risks of BOAS and corneal ulceration, which may lead to blindness and that shorter muzzles, thicker necks and being overweight heighten the risk of BOAS; and larger eyelid openings, nasal folds, short muzzles and exposed ‘eye whites’ increase the risk of corneal ulcers.
Researchers have also found that clinical signs of BOAS, such as respiratory noise and breathing difficulties, are not perceived as a problem by owners of brachycephalic dogs and are instead considered ‘normal for the breed’.
These findings tie in with previous reports indicating that this perception as normal for the breed is common to many vets and breeders, Dr Packer said.
"We hope this research and 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,” Dr Packer said. "We also need to raise awareness among vets providing advice to brachycephalic dog owners and breeders so they can recognise that their dogs’ respiratory and eye problems require veterinary attention.”
The RVC Small Animal Referral Hospital was integral to much of the research, with 700 clinical cases recruited from various clinical services for the studies.
"Over the past four years we have investigated relationships between canine conformation and disease risk in two populations of dogs, incorporating a wide variety of breeds and body shapes,” Dr Packer said. "We included brachycephalic and non-brachycephalic dogs of any breeds, including crossbreeds.”
Dr Burn, lecturer in animal welfare at the RVC, said: "There was general agreement that the dog-buying public needs 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.”
Dr Hendricks, senior lecturer in veterinary dermatology, said: "While 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.
"It is hoped that this will reduce the demand for dogs that may be appealing but will almost inevitably suffer disease such as BOAS.”
Dr Packer said: "The point of the conference was to present the evidence to relevant stakeholders and see how they feel they should proceed. The main point of interest was getting stakeholders in one room – that was a big appeal in terms of having a diverse audience, those from each end of the spectrum.
"It became a little contentious in the afternoon but the finding was that breed Standards should be reviewed quite substantially, and we are waiting to see whether there will be a there will be any changes. The results provided compelling evidence, and there was a lot of agreement on the day – including from members of the KC – about what the main risk factors are, how they can be avoided and who should implement the changes.
"We have contacted Steve Dean about how our data could assist the KC, as we trying to help mould how dogs should look in terms of health, and we are looking to have a detailed conversation with the KC.
"We want to keep ball rolling in terms of breed health; there obviously is an issue with some of these problems and perhaps they need to be addressed more strongly.”
Afterwards Bill Lambert said: "Robust data on exaggerations related to health conditions in pedigree dogs is extremely difficult to find and so the KC welcomes this research.
"Some interesting hypotheses have been put forward particularly regarding the risks of BOAS relating to muzzle and cranium length and clearly there needs to be further data collected in this area. We also need to know exactly which dogs are affected by the health conditions explored, and confirm that they are from populations that are registered with the KC.
"The work carried out by the KC in reviewing breed Standards was acknowledged, but whether those breeders who breed for money without any consideration for the health and welfare of their dogs or the puppies they produce are influenced by breed Standards, is an important question. We should not lose sight of the fact that the major review of Standards which took place in 2009 was undertaken in conjunction with vets; however, the breed Standards remain open for review if changes are shown to be necessary.
"The researchers' definition of brachycephalic may not concur with that of dog folk and the KC, but we are surprised at the inclusion of the Cavalier and the Stafford among brachycephalic breeds."
Dr David Sargan on behalf of the DAC said that ‘judicious outcrossing’ might be needed as a ‘quick fix’ in some of the most seriously affected breeds.
"How this advice could be taken forward most efficiently in practice is something that is still being worked on by the Council, he said.
"Dr Packer presented the measurements she has taken of skull dimensions and other dimensions: in particular she presented her measurements linking palpebral fissure width to corneal ulceration and linking both the ratio of muzzle length to cranial length and neck size to presence of BOAS. These data are still pre-publication and the Advisory Council will wish to see the full details of such measurements before forming detailed advice based on them. However, we congratulate the RVC group on the work it has performed so far. We are already aware that brachycephalic dogs have health problems in all the areas covered in the day, and some others, much more frequently than dogs with more normal skull shapes. Although not all brachycephalic dogs are affected by these conditions they are serious threats to welfare and BOAS may be life threatening.
"We are concerned by the increasing popularity of the brachycephalic breeds and would like to see breeders move away from the current extreme skull shapes to dogs with longer muzzles, deeper eye sockets and less widely set eyes.
"The Council has already offered general advice to avoid breeding from brachycephalic dogs with exaggerated conformational defects; to continue to modify breed standards so that exaggerated conformation is no longer considered to be acceptable; to ensure that dogs with exaggerated conformational defects cannot be shown; that judicious outcrossing may be needed as a ‘quick fix’ in some of the most seriously affected breeds; that ocular examination combined with the relevant genetic laboratory tests, should be regarded as routine for all dogs used for breeding; and that selection for smaller heads within a breed, or outside the breed, may be needed for those bitches that require routine caesarian section for the birth of their puppies.
"This seminar was well attended by interested professionals including scientific researchers, vets, KC representatives and others. Unfortunately, perhaps because it was held on a weekday, it was rather less well attended by interested dog clubs, although a small number were present.”
British Veterinary Association president Robin Hargreaves said: "Vets have been acutely aware of the problems in a number of short-nosed breeds for many years, but there remains a significant and widespread delusion. Too many people think it is ‘normal’ for dogs to pant excessively or have conformation associated eye or skin problems. We must move away from the idea that that is just part of the breed. Normal for the breed is not necessarily normal.
"The evidence presented at the conference will go some way to educating the breed clubs and others involved in the dog world, and it is incumbent on all of us to spread the message to dog owners and the general public. Ideas including revising breed Standards and, if necessary, outcrossing programmes all have merit and should be part of the follow up but they must be undertaken with expert veterinary input.”
Paula Boyden, veterinary director of Dogs Trust, said: "It was a very useful day; the research findings were further evidence of the compromised welfare experienced by brachycephalics, not only in terms of breathing difficulties but also eye and skin problems.
"The degree of problems experienced clearly depend on the both the breed and the individual. It was most interesting to hear an ophthalmologist’s and a dermatologist’s view of dealing with such cases; it is apparent that some cases are considered ‘normal’ despite underlying pathological processes taking place.”
A spokesman for the RSPCA said: "We're concerned that many pedigree dogs are still suffering because they’re bred and judged primarily for how they look. We would like to see the KC breed Standards reviewed by a panel of independent experts so that they prioritise the health, welfare and temperament of the dogs over their looks and this is reflected in the way they are bred and judged.
"We welcome any new research which furthers our knowledge about the health and welfare of brachycephalic breeds. We look forward to the publication of the research with interest."