I love Bulldogs. Yet I’ve never shared my home with a Bulldog and doubt I ever will. As a veterinarian, I’ve simply seen too many medical issues with my beloved sourmugs to take that leap of love.
Sadly, recent genetic research is beginning to validate my apprehensions and fear of heartache. The fact is, if we don’t change the way Bulldogs are bred soon, they may not be around much longer. Have we loved the beloved Bulldog to death by overbreeding?
the origin of the “Bull” dog
From a strictly medical perspective, few animal breeds rank worse in terms of anatomical faults than the squashed-face, short-limbed, barely-breathing Bulldog. What makes this “genetic junk pile” even more tragic is that misguided human intervention largely created it. Even sadder, this brave breed originated from the barbaric practice of bull-baiting.
Short, stocky bodies, wide and powerful jaws and a fighter’s unrelenting focus made this mastiff-type dog descendant a perfect contender. It’s hard to believe bull-baiting was popular in England until being banned in 1835.
a Bulldog’s many flaws
Fast-forward 500 years. Today’s household Bulldog has been bred down in size, and the physical characteristics that made them good bull-baiters are exaggerated. Yes, their block heads, trademark bully “smile” and squished noses are irresistible to us aesthetically – but these extreme physical traits are shortening the modern Bulldog’s life. Studies show Bulldogs live a meager 6 to 9 years with a boat-load of health problems that reduce their quality of life:
- Puppies contend with birth defects such as cleft palate, flat chests and splayed legs.
- Later in life, many suffer joint pain from osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease and misalignment issues.
- Breathing is difficult (hence all the snorting!) due to elongated soft palates, nasal anatomical abnormalities and other respiratory problems, which are one of the leading causes of death in Bulldogs.
- Skin, eye, teeth, heart and immune conditions are rampant.
- Back and spinal conditions are also frequently diagnosed.
are we overbreeding the Bulldog?
Researchers at University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine conducted DNA analysis on Bulldogs to try to find out how to help. Lead scientist Dr. Niels Pedersen commented in a press release, “We were taken back by how little ‘wiggle room’ still exists in the breed for making additional genetic changes. We definitely would question whether further attempts to physically diversify the English Bulldog, for example, by rapidly introducing new, rare coat colors; making the body smaller and more compact; or adding further wrinkles in the coat; are going to improve the already tenuous genetic diversity of the breed.”
In other words, it wouldn’t take much more poor breeding to cause irreparable, even fatal, damage.
Pedersen’s investigation found very large portions of the Bulldog’s genome have been altered by breeding practices. Most of the genetic alterations were to the dog’s physical appearance, not to underlying traits that would improve health, strength, endurance or sensory capabilities. Bulldogs have been blessed – and cursed – with a certain “look” we love; it’s also at risk of driving them out of existence.
how do we help the Bulldog?
Pedersen doesn’t have a solution for the dilemma – yet – but his team and others offer some advice:
- First, we need to conduct more rigorous DNA analyses on at-risk breeds such as Bulldogs. Until we fully understand the problem at a genomic level, it’s hard to offer specific advice.
- Next, once a dog’s DNA has been sequenced, we can use that information to better select breeding partners. This is critical to expand genetic diversity and try to reverse the rise in inbreeding.
- Finally, we need better transparency and reporting of genetic defects for all dogs. Many problems can be avoided by choosing better mates and recording problems when they arise.
Pedersen’s research proves we can help save breeds and reduce suffering if we choose. These changes won’t save the Bulldog overnight; it will likely take decades to unravel the DNA glitches 500 years of trial-and-error breeding have created. But I hope we’ll start making progress today -- I love Bulldogs and can’t imagine a world without them!