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Why people still buy flat-faced dogs despite major health risks

Don't be drawn in by their cuteness.

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Some of the most popular dog breeds — pugs, bulldogs, Frenchies — are vulnerable to a host of health conditions. The reason? The very same physical aspects that make them so sought after.

Keeping these dogs healthy can involve expensive, lifelong care, but some pet owners seem to become uniquely attached to flat-faced breeds. To find out why dog owners remain loyal to these breeds despite their problems, scientists surveyed thousands of puppy parents.

Brachycephalic, or flat-faced, dogs are those with a short snout, giving them an (adorable) flat profile — think bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers, and Pekingese dogs. The shape of the dogs' head, throat, and muzzle can make their breathing passages flatter or smaller, leading to a number of health problems.

The dogs are vulnerable to respiratory diseases, eye problems, and spinal issues. They also have a shorter lifespan by four years compared to dogs with longer muzzles.

Despite their innate health risks, researchers say brachycephalic dogs are undergoing a "population boom." People just keep buying them.

In a new study, researchers surveyed dog owners to understand the reasons why they repeatedly sought out the same breed. Among 2,200 brachycephalic dog owners, 93 percent said they would choose the same breed again in the future, and 65 percent would recommend their dog's breed to others.

The findings were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

The new research aims to investigate why dog owners choose these breeds, and design interventions to help control the population of brachycephalics being bred.

Rowena Packer, an animal behavior lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College, led the study. Packer tells Inverse that the data can be used to better target would-be dog owners.

Veterinarians and other professionals can use the information "to dissuade some prospective owners from purchasing a brachycephalic dog," Packers says, "by opening their eyes to the many problems associated with owning these breeds, as identified by the people who love and care for them."

English bulldogs are among the flat-faced breeds that researchers say are having a popularity boom.Shutterstock

Survey says — Previous studies have looked at why dog owners first decide to get a brachycephalic breed, despite the risk of health problems. For example, the “baby schema effect” suggests that humans are drawn to brachycephalic breeds' faces because they resemble human infant faces. In adult humans, those features trigger positive emotions and an impulse to nurture, research shows.

The new study follows up to ask why dog owners keep coming back for more.

The team of researchers surveyed the owners of pugs, French bulldogs, and English bulldogs. They used statistical modeling to discover trends across owners of the brachycephalic breeds. The research showed that owners more strongly bonded with their dogs were more likely to get the same breed again and to recommend their breed to others.

In contrast, dog owners whose pets had more health or behavior problems were less likely to reacquire or recommend the same breed.

In all, five themes explained owners' reservations about the dogs:

  1. High prevalence of health problems
  2. Expensive to own
  3. Ethical issues related to breeding
  4. Negative effects on owner's lifestyle
  5. Negative behavior attributes

The researchers also gathered data about why people remain loyal to their flat-faced pups. The dogs make good companion, are well-suited to small living spaces, and are good with kids, owners said.

Owner advice — Understanding the "behavioral niche" these dogs fill can help to persuade owners to buy lower-risk breeds in the future, Packer says.

By hearing directly from owners, she hopes would-be dog owners find the argument against getting a brachycephalic breed more convincing.

Respondents were surprisingly honest about their reasons for choosing these dogs — like the perception that they are lazy, so don't need to be walked, Packer says.

Flat-faced dogs' physiology can lead to a host of health problems.Shutterstock

"Their honesty is interesting as it might indicate that it is in fact not culturally seen as taboo to desire a dog that does not ‘need’ to be walked," Packer says.

"In reality, all dogs need some form of time outside for exercise and/or sensory enrichment, so the ‘lazy’ image of brachycephalic breeds is a dangerous misconception to perpetuate."

Even getting a brachycephalic dog from a shelter has its problems, Packer says. While it beats going to a breeder, or supporting a puppy farm or illegal importer, the cultural influence of owning a flat-faced dog is real.

"The flip side of this is that by owning a brachycephalic breed, you may unintentionally influence others to want to own one too – children and adults alike are often lured in by their ‘cuteness’ and will flock towards them when out on a walk," Packer says.

Packer's team says the new findings can help to inform discussions with veterinarians and other animal health professionals when they are counseling dog parents-to-be on breed selection.

"Purchasing a brachycephalic breed with health problems is not just ‘bad luck’ – brachycephalic breeds have problems from head to tail and avoiding them is extremely difficult," Packer says.

"You can avoid nearly all of these problems entirely by picking a more moderate breed, with a healthy body shape."

Abstract: Brachycephalic breeds are proliferating internationally, with dramatic rises in popularity juxtaposed with common and severe breed-related health problems. Physical appearance is as a dominant factor attracting owners to brachycephalic breeds; however, whether these owners will choose their current breed for future ownership and develop ‘breed-loyalty’ in the face of health problems is not yet known. The aims of this study were (1) to quantify levels of, and explore factors associated with, brachycephalic dog owners’ intentions to: (i) reacquire and/or (ii) recommend their current breed to potential first-time dog owners, and (2) to use qualitative methods to explore why brachycephalic dog owners would or would not recommend their current breed. This large mixed methods study reports on 2168 owners of brachycephalic breeds (Pugs: n = 789; French Bulldog: n = 741; Bulldogs: n = 638). Owners were highly likely to want to own their breed again in the future (93.0%) and recommend their breed to other owners (65.5%). Statistical modelling identified that first-time ownership and increased strength of the dog-owner relationship increased the likelihood of reacquisition and/or recommendation. In contrast, an increased number of health problems, positive perception of their dog’s health compared with the rest of their breed, and dog behaviour being worse than expected decreased the likelihood of reacquisition and/or recommendation. Thematic analyses constructed three themes describing why owners recommend their breed: positive behavioural attributes for a companion dog, breed suited to a sedentary lifestyle with limited space, and suitability for households with children. Five themes described why owners recommended against their breed: high prevalence of health problems, expense of ownership, ethical and welfare issues associated with breeding brachycephalic dogs, negative effects upon owner lifestyle and negative behavioural attributes. Understanding how breed-loyalty develops, and whether it can be attenuated, will be key to controlling the current population boom in brachycephalic breeds in the long-term.
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