Pugs on Film - the problems of Pugmania in the media

Posted on June 27, 2018 by Rowena Packer

Two pugs blogThere doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by without the wide-eyed gaze of a Pug staring back at you from a television screen or a billboard. The perennial advertiser’s darling, their cartoonish appearance has been touted to sell anything from cars to computers. Working in companion animal welfare, these images never fail to sadden me; both normalising and popularising a look that essentially traps many dogs in a broken body, destined for a life of veterinary interventions.

In spite of being the fourth most popular breed in the UK at present, the Pug is predisposed to a range of health problems directly related to their body shape, affecting their eyes, breathing, skin, teeth, brain and spine, and are at risk of a reduced lifespan.

Normal for the breed?

Despite these severe problems, signs of disease in flat-faced dogs are often considered ‘normal’, or even viewed positively. For example, the characteristic snoring and snorting noises caused by airway obstruction are considered cute by some. Indeed, research shows that nearly 60% of owners of flat-faced dogs do not recognise airway disease as a ‘problem’ for their dog. This is unsurprising when we consider the way flat-faced animals are used in the media.

Back in 2013, a particularly unpleasant advert featuring a Pug left me particularly exasperated; the Pug was wearing a novelty balaclava and had obvious respiratory noise. The depiction of Pugs as noisy little comedy characters to play ‘dress up’ with normalises signs of airway disease and encourages practices that potentially compromise airways further.

Collaborative action

It has been heartening to witness and be part of the concerted efforts to moderate and ultimately reduce the use of flat-faced breeds in the media, including the BVA’s own #BreedtoBreathe campaign, the online CRUFFA campaign (Campaign for the Responsible Use of Flat-Faced Animals in the Media) and new efforts to influence advertisers from the multi-stakeholder Brachycephalic Working Group. This swell of activity to avoid the glorification of flat-faced breeds in the media makes it all the more disappointing that in an upcoming film, Patrick, a Pug will be the title-character.

Pugs on film: what’s the problem?

Films are potentially powerful events that can shape our preferences for many years after their viewing. Research has demonstrated that the release of films featuring dogs is often associated with 10 year surges in the popularity of the featured breeds. This may be in part due to young people viewing these films at a stage they are unable to buy a dog themselves (or persuade their parents), and thus these latent preferences are expressed in adulthood.

It is no surprise that Pugs are featured more prominently in films at present; a vicious cycle exists where more popular breeds feature in films, and in turn become more popular, and so it continues. With Pugs featuring in a range of recent films (The Secret Life of Pets, The Nut Job and Kingsmen to name but a few), young people are being exposed to flat-faced dogs like never before. In Patrick, the snub-nosed protagonist is dressed up in a tuxedo and is the butt of jokes about his snoring and his greediness – both considered endearing human-like traits on the surface. With obesity the number one health issue identified in a recent large-scale study of Pug health, and identified as an important risk factor for airway disease in my own research, depicting flat-faced dogs in this way is of great concern.

When will ‘Pugmania’ end?

Research from the USA has identified ‘boom-bust’ patterns of growth and decline in dog breed popularity, where the boom phase of population growth lasts on average 13.8 years, followed by a sharp decline in registrations. However, these patterns do not hold for all breeds, with others maintaining a reasonably high level of popularity after the initial boom phase. We should not rest on our laurels and assume that a ‘bust’ phase is on the horizon for flat-faced dogs. Pugs were not included in the US study and my most recent research indicates that the vast majority of existing Pug owners would like to purchase another Pug in the future, and are highly likely to recommend their breed to other owners.

Pug registrations will only drop through consistent messaging that their body shape puts them at an unacceptably high risk of poor health and welfare. Treating these sweet dogs as fashionable playthings for our entertainment is unethical, and the film industry and broader media need to be made aware that their behaviour may cause generations of canine suffering. As viewers, we need to make sure we are not part of the problem, but part of the solution.

Rowena Packer

Written by Rowena Packer

BBSRC Future Leader Research Fellow

Rowena Packer graduated from the University of Bristol in 2009 with a degree in Animal Behaviour and Welfare. She then went on to be awarded a PhD from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in 2013, focusing on the health and welfare consequences of exaggerated conformation in dogs. She is currently a BBSRC Future Leader Research Fellow at RVC. Rowena was awarded UFAW Young Animal Welfare Scientist of the Year award in 2016 for her work on breed health, and is a member of the Brachycephalic Working Group and Dog Breeding Reform Group.