Study: English bulldogs at twice the risk of breeding-related health problems

“The huge difference between the health profiles of bulldogs and the health profiles of [other breeds] blew my mind,” said Dan O’Neill, PhD, MS, lead author of a new study on the breeding-related health problems of English bulldogs.


“The huge difference between the health profiles of bulldogs and the health profiles of all remaining dogs blew my mind,” Dan O’Neill, PhD, MS, told NEWStat.

O’Neil is an associate professor of Companion Animal Epidemiology at the Royal Veterinary College and lead author of a new study on the breeding-related health problems of English bulldogs—according the findings, the breed is at increased risk of breathing, eye, and skin conditions due to their extreme physical features, including shortened muzzles, folded skin, and squat body.

Muscular and athletic, the English bulldog was originally bred for a form of bullfighting called bull-baiting that was popular in the 17th century. By the time bull-baiting was outlawed in 1835, the breed had become so beloved by the English that it came to serve as a national symbol of grit, determination, and fortitude. Eventually they were bred to be show dogs and companion animals—but at a steep cost for the breed itself.

What came to be seen as desired physical features and traits—that short (brachycephalic, or flat-faced) skull, protruding jaw, skin folds, and squat, heavy build—have long been linked to a number of health conditions. So much so that countries such as the Netherlands and Norway have restricted the breeding of English Bulldogs in recent years.

That’s because those beloved English bulldogs may be paying an even steeper price than previously suspected.

O’Neill and his colleagues compared the risks of common health problems in English bulldogs to other dogs by analyzing records from veterinary practices across the UK. They found that English bulldogs were twice as likely to be diagnosed with at least one disorder than other dogs—predispositions for 24 out of 43 (55.8%) specific disorders.

O’Neill said the findings highlight how far the breed has diverged from the mainstream of dogs overall, and how that divergence hasn’t been positive in terms of the breed’s health. “These English bulldogs are often really lovely dogs with stoical personalities that deal with all the health issues that we’ve given them.”

He also said the findings can help veterinarians who care for English bulldogs practice better medicine: “The core concept here is the power of good evidence.” He noted that the findings are based on the records of dogs attending routine primary care veterinary care so they reflect exactly what vets are seeing in practice every day. “This means that vet teams can present these [findings] to their clients to show the real state of health of this and other breeds.”

O’Neill said the evidence suggests that the bulldog’s major health issues are linked to the severely brachycephalic skull and the protruding lower jaw. “Moving away from these features would likely reduce the health issues related to the breathing problems, the skin fold problems and some of the ocular issues.”

But how do we go about making change happen?

O’Neill notes that most dogs are bred as products to sell: “It’s our purchasing decisions that decide which dogs exist and how extreme their conformations are.”

The goal is to get people to reassess what they think makes a good-looking English bulldog, and advocates for the health of the breed are working on that right now: “The United Kingdom Brachycephalic Working Group (BWG) has defined innate health in dogs and shows examples of conformational features that are not conducive to good innate health,” he adds. “We all need to share and move towards viewing innate health as a fundamental criterion when selecting which dogs to buy.”

Changing people’s opinions on what makes for a good-looking English bulldog could be challenging, given that some people’s reactions to the findings were less than positive.

O’Neill said that while the vast majority of humans accepted the findings for what they were—evidence on the overall state of health of the breed—“there were some groups who are reluctant to challenge their love and history with the breed by considering any viewpoint that does not fit with these prior beliefs.”

He notes that the fundamental criterion of the UK BWG is that maximizing good health, welfare, and temperament overrides all other considerations for dogs.

“We all need to put the health of the dogs as our main focus,” he added, “and to place our personal wishes to own certain types of dogs as subservient.”

Photo credit: © Alvarez/E+ via Getty Images Plus

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