Broaching the brachy issue with our clients

Posted on January 12, 2018 by Robin Hargreaves

The BVA #BreedtoBreathe campaign seeks to improve the welfare of our veterinary patients by discouraging the current trend for owning and breeding ever more short-faced pets with the inevitable degrees of welfare compromise that come with this particular morphological type. One strand of this initiative is for practices to do their part in educating potential pet owners and, perhaps the more difficult challenge of, engaging current owners of brachycephalic pets.

The dilemma of this challenge is evident in our practice every day. We see charming, affectionate brachycephalic animals owned by equally friendly, enthusiastic and welfare-oriented owners. These pets are coming for their routine health checks, they are engaged in our preventive health programmes and they are often delightful characterful individuals.

A consistent characteristic of all my patients is that by and large they make the very most of their potential within the limitations of their clinical physiological circumstances. We rarely, if ever, identify “sulking” in our patients. They seem to make the very best of their situations whether it be coping with a leg amputation or managing with chronic heart disease. 

"Normal" breathing?

The situation is similar with our brachycephalic patients. The degree to which their quality of life is impacted by their morphology varies, but in every case they seem to be managing as well as they possibly can. This will often be illustrated by an excitable engaging temperament, which allows owners to rationalise the noisy breathing as “normal” because the animal doesn’t seem to be worried about it.

Clients are used to identifying the presence of illness or injury by a change in behaviour in their pets, for instance loss of appetite, lethargy, or obvious manifestation of pain. Brachycephalic pets, even with significant respiratory compromise, may show none of these signs and their condition for the most part is stable and consistent and so it does not trigger any of the usual recognition of disease.

More controversially perhaps it is seen as a commendable human quality to nurture and care for those who are differently abled and the stigmatisation of physical disability is rightly condemned in a modern civilised society.

The challenges of practice

All of this presents us with real challenges in practice. How do we highlight the fundamental contradiction inherent in breeding animals whose defining characteristics are detrimental to their welfare to a population of breeders and customers who are almost entirely welfare advocates and completely engaged in every other way in optimising the health of their pets?

I think this calls for a very thoughtful and multi layered approach. At a national level, public awareness can be raised by quite direct and hard-hitting materials that might have shock value. Graphic illustrations of the consequences in the worst affected individuals and evidence-based campaigns through national media outlets and representative bodies of expert opinion leaders, like BVA.

At a practice level, it must be handled much more subtly to avoid the danger of alienating existing owners who may disengage with the profession and avoid seeking the other preventive services that can optimise the quality of life for that individual animal.

A good relationship with the practice can mean that serious confounding factors, like the devastating effect that obesity can have on a dog with underlying brachycephalic airway syndrome (BOAS), can be avoided and, where necessary, corrective surgery may be performed.

No single solution

This is not a problem with a single solution. I have seen different ownership trends in my career, for example, Rottweilers in the 80s and early 90s and sled dogs more recently. New owners have never really taken pre-purchase advice from the profession and, unfortunately, I haven’t seen that changing recently, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying (and there are tools to help us deliver it). Consistent messaging at a national level, coupled with compassionate but realistic assessment of the problems manifest in our patients within the practice may, in time, turn things round.

What we must avoid is the impression that as a profession we consider all new owners of these animals to be stupid or – worse – cruel. All our messages must emphasise our motivation as veterinary professionals to see people have long and rewarding relationships with happy, healthy pets.

Download the BVA #BreedtoBreathe 10-point plan for practices now.

More on this topic

Robin Hargreaves

Written by Robin Hargreaves

BVA President from September 2013 to September 2014

Robin is a director and small animal practitioner at Stanley House Veterinary Surgery in Lancashire. He also the BVA representative on the RCVS Mind Matters initiative.