I’ve been asked to speak this year at Vets South and Vets North in their nursing streams on the welfare issues associated with brachycephaly or flat-faced animals. It’s a job I gladly accepted. It feels like these animals have been in the news so much recently that there couldn’t possibly be any reason to keep talking about it. Surely everyone must know the devastating levels of disease these poor creatures face. Sadly this is not the case. With hundreds of thousands of French bulldogs, English bulldogs and pugs flooding into homes every year this really is a welfare crisis waiting to happen.
The adoption organisations are already starting to report growing numbers of these animals filling up their centres as unsuspecting owners realise that they simply can’t afford the cost of their health issues.
Evidence suggests that around half of these dogs are affected by BOAS, the obstructive airway problems that range from mild to life-threatening. In fact it seems that less than 10% have normal breathing that you’d expect in a normal dog. These are horrific numbers. Add to this the fact that BOAS is a progressive disease and won’t show up in many dogs until the age of 2-4 years then you can see that the next 10-20 years are going to be disastrous for animal welfare. We also need to remember that it’s not just about their breathing. They also have higher levels of eye, skin, heart and spinal problems than normal dogs and fundamentally many of them can’t reproduce naturally. This should raise ethical questions in our mind about how morally right it is to continue to aid their reproduction.
But the thing is that it’s not just the dogs that are being affected. I’m often contacted by vets who are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the emotional distress that they and are their team feel on seeing so many of these dogs streaming through the doors. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of owners going through the heartache of watching their beloved pets suffer and sometimes die at young ages. And there will be many owners distressed by having to make the choice to relinquish their pet due to costs.
After my talk I had a chat with several people facing ethical dilemmas at work. Stories such as an owner who wants to breed from a brachy dog that even at a young age already has clear signs of disease. Surely if the owner breeds from a dog that is already suffering, and her puppies are likely to go on to suffer this breeder would be prosecutable under the new animal welfare laws. But who will report it? Someone must if this is going to end. The soul-destroying thing was that this isn’t an isolated case. The huddle of vets and nurses that came up to me afterwards all had similar stories.
I think it’s very common for practices to have policies on lots of things like drugs and procedures and health and safety BUT I suspect there are few that sit down and have ethical discussions. I really believe that the extreme conformation issues, not just the brachys, are causing significant ethical compromises in vets and nurses who feel conflicted. It’s important we work in practices where we feel comfortable to express our beliefs when it coms to ethics and welfare. If your practice doesn’t discuss what they feel is acceptable get it started. Will you offer planned c-sections? Will you take bloods for pregnancy testing knowing the puppies will be diseased? Will you do AI on bitches incapable of mating? These are questions just as valid as tail-docking and ear cropping. In fact you’re not just talking about the welfare of the individual dog in question but potentially hundreds of others in future generations. It’s time that every member of the practice team feels comfortable to speak up and to be able to opt out of procedures which make them feel conflicted. Let me know on Twitter or Facebook if you’ve had similar compromises.