If we show someone from the 19th century photo of a current English bulldog, you would probably have trouble recognizing it. Inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity has made these flat-faced dogs the epitome of ill health, to the point that countries like Norway have restricted their breeding. A group of UK researchers has warned that urgent action must be taken to save bulldogs from the genetic impasse into which humans have led them.
The study, published this Wednesday in the magazine Canine Medicine and Genetics, analyzed more than 2,600 bulldogs from the United Kingdom and compared them with more than 22,000 dogs of different breeds. The results once again confirm the poor state of health of these animals, which have a higher risk of suffering from respiratory problems –due to their flat face–, eye and skin problems. The culprit: the "extreme physical characteristics" generated during their breeding.
The researcher at the University of London and co-author of the study Dan O'Neil assures elDiario.es that it is essential that society "accept" that there are "several serious health problems" related to this breed due to its extreme physique. "People should demand bulldogs whose physique is much more moderate so that the breed does not disappear, but who can live well."
This is not the first work that puts the spotlight on the health of bulldogs. A study published in April this year in the journal Scientific Reports has already shown that the life expectancy at birth of brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, such as French, English and Pug bulldogs, was up to 4.5 years lower compared to longer-lived breeds such as Jack Russell terriers. O'Neil's study also affects this problem: only 9.7% of the bulldogs analyzed were over eight years old, while 25.4% of the rest of the breeds were over that age.
The professor emeritus of the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of California in Davis (USA) Niels Pedersen published in 2016 a genetic evaluation of English bulldogs. His findings showed that many parts of their genome had been inbred to the point of questioning the future viability of this breed.
Even so, Pedersen argued that efforts should be made to return English bulldogs to reasonable health, either through reverse selection (through crosses within the same breed) or through outcrossing (with others). Six years later, has progress been made in this direction?
"There is no evidence that bulldog breeders have even tried to improve the breed from within, as the popularity of the breed is proof to them that they are in good health," says Pedersen. "I suggested cross-breeding was the best answer and showed successful examples, but breeders claim these are mongrels, not true bulldogs, even though the popularity of these new types is increasing."
The objection raised by the breeders leaves a question in the air: what is a bulldog? O'Neal recalls that dog breeds are a concept "invented by humans" in the 19th century and that their popularity has always risen and fallen due to many factors, "especially social." This is why new breeds, like cockapoos, are constantly appearing while others disappear. or are at risk of doing so.
O'Neil believes that the key to saving this breed may lie, in a way, in semantics: "It is definitely possible to have dogs in the future that we call English bulldogs." He lists some of the necessary changes, such as a longer snout, a lower jaw that doesn't protrude, flatter skin, and a longer tail.
His commitment is to inform the population of this issue to avoid the purchase and breeding of animals"Would we want to be born a dog that can't breathe properly, walk or even blink? A lifetime of sore, smelly fur, unable to groom, reproduce and give birth naturally," says O'Neil. "If not, why not apply the same thinking to dogs and pick one that has a lifetime of good health?"
The researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid Javier Cañón explains that the current situation of some breeds such as the bulldog "is a consequence of the selection criteria used, which emphasize morphological characters that are easy to select" and criticizes the fact that "fashions" have led to the current situation.
Cannon laments that the involvement of genetics professionals in the breeding activities of canine societies and breed clubs has traditionally been "very limited." He also sees the need for "greater demands on animal welfare, establishing the relationship between certain morphological orientations and breeding quality parameters." However, he believes that no race should disappear, as long as it is selected in the opposite direction so that it returns "to values more compatible with well-being."
Pedersen extrapolates his opinion of the English bulldog to any other dog in a similar situation: "If the health of the breed cannot be restored, it is inhumane to allow it to continue." That is why he believes that the answer to the question at the head of this article should be obvious: "No, we should not breed any animal that makes their lives less healthy or causes them unnecessary harm and suffering."
That is why Norway and the Netherlands have restricted the breeding of bulldogs. Others, like Switzerland, have opted for create new breeds like the continental bulldog. O'Neil's study puts pressure on the UK, as he warns the breed could be banned there too if urgent action is not taken.
Cañón says that, as a geneticist, he thinks that "there are alternatives to the ban", but he claims to understand it as a way of pressuring canine organizations to "take note of what can happen if they maintain selection pressures" towards these harmful extremes for animals.
O'Neil explains that what works in one country may not work in another, that "it is not clear what it means to ban a breed" and that restrictive legislation "does not have to be the only way, nor the most effective , to reduce the popularity of these breeds".
The researcher is clear that the most important criterion in this debate, above any other, is the welfare of the dogs. But that does not mean that there are breeds that should disappear, if the available alternatives allow their health status to be improved.
The bulldog gets its name from the bloody spectacle in which its ancestors participated, the "bull-baiting", in which several dogs faced a bull that they had to immobilize by biting its nose. The breed almost disappeared with this activity, abandoned for its cruelty as early as the 19th century. His subsequent recovery, however, brought inbreeding under his arm and numerous health problems.
"The bulldog's health problems have been of concern to many people since its origins as a recognized breed," says Pedersen. "Severe inbreeding, extreme skeletal forms, high incidence of health problems, reproductive limitations, and shortened lifespans have also been well known."
Pedersen explains that the public's fascination with the breed, which became very popular as a pet, "quashed" these concerns "for decades." However, he believes owners, breeders and veterinarians are becoming "less willing to tolerate handling of an animal that causes chronic pain and suffering."
It is for this reason that O'Neil assures that "we are at a crucial moment" in the debate on how to address these "serious welfare problems" associated with the lack of genetic variability. "The power of change is largely in the hands of the public," he concludes.