Stop normalising suffering: vets speaking out about brachys

Posted on January 27, 2017 by Gudrun Ravetz

Advancements in medical and surgical knowledge and techniques mean that we can do more for pets’ health and welfare but I wonder if sometimes one of the most powerful tools we have to improve welfare is our professional voice. In veterinary practices we are seeing more and more brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds and the complex health and welfare problems that many of them suffer. According to Kennel Club (KC) registration figures (124 KB PDF) French bulldogs, for example, are now 31 times more popular than they were in 2007.

Vets are speaking out

Pugs sitting on grass (main)Last September BVA hit the headlines asking the puppy-buying public not to choose flat-faced breeds. And last week one vet at Bilton Veterinary Centre in Rugby was so “exhausted and demoralised” by seeing case after case of problems created by poor breeding practices that they posted a heartfelt message on Facebook: “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE STOP AND THINK before you buy. Come and talk to US about the breeds that you are interested in - and we shall give you the whole picture.”

That message has been shared a massive 35,000 times so far. There’s no doubt that it can be daunting to speak out, but there’s an enormous amount of support for those that do.

Vets must be part of the solution

In a paper for the Canadian Veterinary Journal, Koharik Arman challenged: “The veterinary profession has facilitated the evolution of purebred dogs. ‘Breeds’ that would not normally be sustainable are propagated by the compliance of veterinarians to breeder wishes. Breeds such as the bulldog cannot complete parturition without surgical intervention… In this fashion, the veterinary profession contributes to canine genetic depletion, and even if this were not the case, it is still the profession’s responsibility to partake in the solution.”

In response to the rising problems associated with the increased popularity of brachycephalic breeds, we – as vets – have a professional and moral obligation to be part of the solution, to make lives better for dogs at all levels: as the individual professional; as the veterinary team in practice; and at the veterinary association level. We must look to improve the lives of current generations, improve the lives of future generations, and help to inform puppy purchasing decisions by encouraging all breeders and puppy purchasers to use the Puppy Contract and Information Pack.

Many of the things that we can do to help pedigree dog welfare are not complex, and start with the way we speak in practice. When we use the phrase ‘normal for the breed’, or when we don’t mention the ‘noisy’ breathing because the dog is in for a different problem, we are normalising the problem when we should be challenging it for the abnormal problem that it is.

A study at the RVC by Rowena Packer and others looked at dog owners’ perceptions of whether their dogs were suffering from Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS) compared to clinical evidence of BOAS being present. 58% of owners with BOAS affected animals reported their dogs had no breathing problems. This normalisation of the problem is a real concern for the health and welfare of these dogs. And as professionals we need to challenge this perception of normal.

conformation altering surgery poster

Download and display our  awareness poster on submitting data (94 KB PDF)

Data can be extremely powerful to help make a change and it is vital that vets are part of this. Any KC-registered animal that has undergone conformation altering surgery or a caesarean should be reported to the KC. These data can help to inform evidence-based changes and make a difference for the future health of breeds. The information and FAQs on the BVA website give useful answers to queries. As practices it is also vital that we are part of the wider data collection to help inform pet health and welfare through evidence by sharing pet data with VetCompass and SAVSNET.

The health and welfare problems of brachycephalics – both dogs and cats – is a priority for BVA and we continue to use our professional voice in the media to push for an improvement in the health and welfare of these animals as well as working with other stakeholders to look for solutions. In response to research into the breed health of English bulldogs, BVA issued a statement calling for a revision of breed standards and consideration of other approaches, such as outcrossing, to prevent further suffering of bulldogs and other high risk breeds.

In short:

  • We need to recognise the problems in brachycephalics and must not become immune to them
  • We should work with all stakeholders for the good of dog health
  • We must make sure we educate ourselves and be confident educators for dog owners
  • We must supply data and use the evidence base that comes from it

For more on this topic, I would encourage you to watch our free webinar on Pedigree dog welfare: what more can the profession do?

And so I come back to the beginning, we must of course use the knowledge and techniques that we have to improve the lives of current generations, but perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is to use our professional voice to improve the lives of future generations. As the Bateson report said in 2010: “…current dog breeding practices do in many cases impose welfare costs on individual dogs from a variety of causes… Improving the situation will require cooperation and action at many different levels and by many different people.”

More from BVA on dog health and welfare

Gudrun Ravetz

Written by Gudrun Ravetz

BVA President from September 2016 to September 2017

Gudrun currently works as a Veterinary Consultant for Denplan and is an interviewer for prospective students at University of Liverpool. Gudrun was previously President of the Society for Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS). Follow @RavetzGudrun on Twitter.