Photograph by Don Emmert, AFP/Getty
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French bulldog puppy Louis attends an American Kennel Club news conference on February 26, 2015, in New York City.

Photograph by Don Emmert, AFP/Getty

Are We Loving French Bulldogs to Death?

In their quest to make the "perfect" bulldog, many irresponsible breeders are ignoring health issues, such as chronic respiratory disorders.

The French bulldog has exploded in popularity in the United States and the United Kingdom in recent years, and for understandable reasons: It's a handy size, easy to groom, and people find its personality and looks adorable.

The breed has leapt from 11th in American Kennel Club registrations in 2013 to fourth in 2017. But the trend isn't good news to those you'd think might welcome it.

"In my opinion it's horrible, because those figures are not produced by responsible breeders," says Virginia Rowland, president of the French Bull Dog Club of America.

That's because, in their quest to make the "perfect" bulldog, many irresponsible breeders are ignoring the health issues that plague the breed—such as chronic eye, skin, digestive, and particularly, respiratory disorders.

A big part of the problem is that breeds like French bulldogs, pugs, and English bulldogs are what's called brachycephalic—bred to have that cute, short muzzle. In extreme cases, these dogs can get so dangerously overheated and short of breath that they need surgery to open their nostrils and shorten their soft palate. (See "Dogs' Brains Reorganized by Breeding.")

Research done in the UK and published in 2016 found that almost half of French bulldogs have significant breathing problems, with over 66 percent showing stenotic nares, or excessively tight nostrils.

"He Was Slowly Suffocating"

Heather Hanna was already well versed in French bulldog health issues when she purchased her third "Frenchie," named Arnie, in 2015.

"I knew before picking him up from his breeder's house that he had some sort of health problems and was having trouble keeping on weight, but I had no idea the extent of it all," says Hanna, who lives in Wyoming.

Arnie couldn't even lie down to sleep due to difficulties breathing. After six months of research and consultations with vets, Hanna decided to take Arnie to Germany for advanced surgery to treat his constricted airways. (See "Dogs Are Even More Like Us Than We Thought.")

"I didn't know if the surgeries would work, but it was either make the trip or euthanasia, Arnie's quality of life was that bad," she says. "He was slowly suffocating to death before my eyes."

After Arnie was home, Hanna realized that her other French bulldog, Milly, was suffering from the same acute respiratory issues. Milly was one of the first dogs to have the advanced airway procedure done in the U.S., but it wasn't enough: She also went to Germany for additional surgery.

Careful Breeding

Compare today's brachychephalic dogs with decades-old photos, and it's clear that snouts have gotten shorter. Dog show standards probably drove that trend, but things may be changing.

"Judges more and more and becoming more educated and more cognizant that the really tight nostrils are not a good thing," says Jerold Bell, a veterinary geneticist at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

"Five years ago, when I would show a picture of a French bulldog with really tight nostrils, the answer judges would give back to me is, 'What's the rest of the dog look like?'"

Rowland, who serves as a judge for French bulldog shows, says she would "not reward a dog that has any kind of breathing issue."

Calvin Dykes, the French Bull Dog Club of America's chairperson for health and genetics, notes that the club has required health tests for member breeders that have improved the French bulldog breed. In 2009, 24 percent of French bulldogs tested in the U.S. carried a gene responsible for juvenile hereditary cataracts; in 2017, the rate is less than 2 percent, thanks to the use of DNA testing to make breeding decisions. (See your dog pictures submitted to National Geographic.)

"I have no less than a thousand dollars in health tests [done] on a female before I breed her," Dykes notes.

Start of a Movement

However, both of Hanna's dogs came from show breeders; she'd been advised to go that route after her first French bulldog, Tudors Grace, died young.

So perhaps it's no surprise that many have demanded more than the good intentions of judges and breeders. In the UK such a movement started in 2008 with the BBC documentary, "Pedigree Dogs Exposed," and its 2012 sequel.

See the Ways Your Dog Tells You What It Wants Researchers identified 47 potential signals while studying canine behavior.

As a result, in 2012, the UK Kennel Club introduced vet checks for brachycephalic breeds at shows, and in 2016, a petition signed by over 40,000 veterinary professionals led to the creation of a working group aimed at improving their health.

Forget Frenchies?

As yet, there's no similar push for oversight in the United States.

Tufts University's Bell is part of a group developing a physical test to evaluate tight nostrils—but a test won't solve the problem by itself, he says. Breeders need to make better choices.

"You have to select in breeding dogs that can breathe well," he says. "We do know from studies that that is very heritable. If you select for open nostrils, you're going to get wider nostrils." (Read more about how dogs evolved in National Geographic magazine.)

For now, it's buyer beware. Bell advises seeing a breeder's full medical records as well as their dogs' test results.

Hanna has a more radical suggestion.

"I would recommend choosing another non-flat-faced breed or, even better, adopt a mutt from the shelter—one with a proper nose and a bit of a tail," she says.

"I will never, ever, ever intentionally acquire another Frenchie."