Bulldogs are prone to health problems.  New Hampshire can restrict their breeding
Bulldogs are prone to health problems.  New Hampshire can restrict their breeding

With their squishy faces and button noses, French bulldogs, pugs and bulldogs are among the most popular breeds in the US. But their large stature also has a dark side: the breeds are prone to health problems, especially with breathing.

Now New Hampshire may become the first state in the country to restrict the breeding of these dogs. Lawmakers will vote this week on a bill that would ban the breeding of dogs that have a physical trait, such as a short nose, that “causes distress.”

Bulldogs and other flat-faced breeds can have noisy, labored breathing resulting from brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome. Dogs are bred to have shortened skulls, but still have large amounts of skin and soft tissue, including in their mouths. This impedes their breathing, especially putting them at risk of heatstroke, as dogs need to pant to cool down.

“A lot of people are going to see how cute they are on social media,” said Ellen Reed, the New Hampshire representative who introduced the legislation. “People will buy these very cute, very flat-faced puppies from reputable breeders. You think they’re healthy, and then you realize the animal needs surgery just to be able to breathe.”

Supporters of the legislation say it’s about giving dogs the best quality of life and protecting dog owners from unknowingly getting dogs that need medical treatment costing thousands of dollars. Although the bill is the first of its kind for a US state, countries such as Norway and the Netherlands have already taken steps to impose restrictions on the breeding of “breeds with impaired breathing.”

Reed says the legislation is still being debated, but she supports a version of the bill that would require breeders to have their dogs checked for respiratory problems by a veterinarian before breeding them. Knowingly keeping French Bulldogs, Pugs and Bulldogs with serious breathing problems would be a civil penalty, potentially including a fine.

“The bill doesn’t take away anyone’s dog,” Reid says. “It doesn’t eliminate certain breeds. What it does is ensure that breeding practices are done ethically. So this bill prohibits, quite simply, the breeding of two separate animals that have identical deformities that cause suffering.”

Opposition to the legislation was strong from purebred dog groups, including the American Kennel Club.

“Bills like this put our breeders on the defensive,” said Phil Guidry, director of policy analysis for the American Kennel Club. “This is absolutely extreme. Why go down this path of extremism when we can take the opportunity to respect that common ground and work together in a way that we all agree is the best next step for dogs?”

Guidry says his group supports educating breeders on best practices rather than imposing breed-specific penalties. Bulldog groups say dogs can live healthy lives and many of the serious health problems can be attributed to irresponsible breeders.

However, research shows that given the level of inbreeding in some dog breeds, eliminating their health problems through breeding is a challenge. Today’s purebred bulldogs are descended from a small group of founder animals, meaning that there may not be enough genetic diversity within the current population for problematic traits to breed. Some veterinarians claim that the exaggerated appearance of a dog’s body exacerbates their health problems.

Studies show that short-nosed breeds experience more health problems than other dogs, including eye, spine and skin problems. Due to the changed body shape, many of them cannot give birth naturally and have to give birth to puppies by caesarean section.

The appearance of the Bulldog, Pug and French Bulldog is controlled by the national club for each breed, which sets a “breed standard”. For French Bulldogs, the nose is required to be “extremely short”. In 2021, in response to criticism, the UK Kennel Club changed its French Bulldog standard to specify that the dog’s muzzle should be “well defined”.

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