clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

America’s most popular dog wasn’t bred for this heat

Frenchies and other flat-faced dogs struggle to breathe all year. Extreme heat is making it worse.

A French bulldog.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

Earlier this year, the French bulldog — or the “Frenchie,” as the breed is affectionately known — was named the United States’ most popular dog, ending the Labrador’s 31-year reign. But some of the characteristics that make the Frenchie so irresistibly cute — the scrunched-up flat face, the little button nose, the giant tongue — can also make it hard for them to breathe, especially during the record-breaking heat waves gripping much of the US and the world this summer.

Frenchies, along with English bulldogs (ranked 6th) and pugs (ranked 35th), and around 20 other flat-faced breeds, are brachycephalic, meaning they have unusually short skulls. This makes the soft palate at the back of their mouths too long for their heads, which blocks airflow into the windpipe and lungs. Some of the traits that make it harder for them to breathe are obvious to the naked eye, like their narrow nostrils and large tongues.

Taken together, these conditions make them highly susceptible to brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, or BOAS, which veterinarians say is a chronic, lifelong, debilitating respiratory disease that degrades their quality of life. Brachycephalic breeds also have shorter lifespans; in the United Kingdom, French bulldogs have the lowest life expectancy of all breeds, at an astonishingly short 4.5 years. One University of Cambridge study found that 90 percent of Frenchies tested had some level of airway restriction.

Some owners put their dogs through invasive surgeries, like widening their nostrils, just to give them some relief.

“Imagine breathing with somebody holding your nose ... and your throat’s really swollen,” said bioethicist Jessica Pierce, drawing from an article in DogTime. “Imagine breathing like that all the time.”

It’s estimated that around half of Frenchies, pugs, and English bulldogs suffer from BOAS, though many may not get the veterinary care they need as most owners see the clinical signs of BOAS — snorting, snoring, and heavy breathing — as normal.

“You’ll have people say that the snuffling sound is so cute, and it’s actually a dog struggling to breathe,” said Pierce, who has authored books on animal behavior and welfare, most recently Who’s a Good Dog? “I think it’s just a lack of empathy, and a lack of awareness.”

Just like for humans with respiratory issues, extreme heat makes it all the worse: Brachycephalic dogs are much more likely to suffer heat-related illness events than other breeds.

Emma Goodman Milne, a veterinarian in France, said that unless you live in an especially cool climate, there are “vast swathes of the day that [brachycephalic dogs are] incapable of exercising comfortably because a) they can’t breathe, and b) they can’t heat-regulate either. So they’re much more prone to heat exhaustion and heatstroke, and I think people often underestimate that.”

Milne said that while individual dogs vary, brachycephalic breeds tend to begin panting at much lower temperatures than other dogs — a difference of around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Given that temperatures are expected to rise in the years ahead, we may want to add one more task to humanity’s climate change adaptation to-do list: Stop breeding dogs that struggle so much in the heat.

“It’s just a low-hanging fruit if you want to reduce dog suffering,” said Pierce.

How to keep your dog cool on a warming planet

There’s a lot we can do for brachycephalic breeds — and all dogs — to keep them cool as summers get hotter (and smokier).

The most obvious and effective thing to prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke is to avoid the heat. This summer, I’ve taken to walking my dog, Evvie, in the mornings and evenings (while keeping daytime walks under 10 minutes). I try to not get too far from home in case she starts to display signs of overheating: According to the ASPCA, those include excessive panting, difficulty breathing, increased heart rate, drooling, mild weakness, or collapse. More severe symptoms can include “seizures, bloody diarrhea, and vomit along with a body temperature of over 104 degrees.”

If you haven’t already, identify your closest 24/7 emergency veterinarian office in the event your dog’s health goes downhill fast in extreme temperatures. And if your dog is really hot, be mindful to not cool them down too rapidly or too much, which can cause a condition called rebound hypothermia.

For the sake of my dog’s health and happiness, I abandon all sense of fashion on these walks and wear a decked-out fanny pack big enough to store a little water bowl and bottle of water if it’s particularly hot and sunny. Pierce’s daughter puts a cooling vest on her dog Poppy.

Poppy the dog wearing a cooling vest.
Sage Madden

Beyond the air temperature, there’s asphalt, which can get exceptionally hot and cause injury to dogs.

“A good rule of thumb is to place a hand on the surface of the pavement for 10 seconds. If the pavement is too hot for your hand, then it’s too hot for your pets’ paws,” said Lori Bierbrier, senior medical director for ASPCA Community Medicine, in an email to Vox. And since dogs’ bellies are so low to the ground, heat rising from the asphalt affects them more than it does us. When possible, walk on grass and dirt. (Disclosure: This summer I attended a media fellowship program at Vermont Law and Graduate School that was funded by the ASPCA.)

When it’s very hot, keep outdoor time to a minimum, especially for the dogs most at risk of heat exhaustion. In addition to brachycephalic breeds, that group includes dogs who are overweight, senior dogs, puppies, and those with lung and heart conditions.

Amid their humans’ busy schedules, dogs may already be quite bored. With fewer opportunities for walks and exercise, they could become even more frustrated during the hot summer months, so be sure to play with them indoors. If possible, arrange doggy play dates (a few times a week, I get my dog together with a neighbor’s).

Evvie, the author’s dog, and her friend Sorin, take a break to beg for treats while playing indoors.
Courtesy of Lynn Rose

Brachycephalic breeds, which struggle to exercise because of their respiratory issues and heat intolerance, could be extra bored.

“Their level of frustration is very high,” Milne said. “You’ll often hear people say that brachycephalics are good pets because they don’t need much exercise.” But they do — they’re just not in good enough shape to be very active, she said. University of Cambridge researchers consider dogs with BOAS to have “exercise intolerance.”

And of course, never, ever leave your dog alone in a parked car. “The temperature inside your parked car may be as much as 20 degrees hotter than the temperature outside,” Bierbrier said. “Not only can it lead to a fatal heat stroke, it’s illegal in many states.”

Fourteen states have “Good Samaritan” laws that allow you to legally break into a parked car with an animal inside if you have a good-faith, reasonable belief that their health or life is at imminent risk. In most of these states, you must first contact law enforcement; familiarize yourself with the laws in your state ahead of time in case you come across a suffering animal in a car.

Beyond tips and best practices to keep dogs comfy in the summertime, Pierce offers another idea that’s easy to implement: Adopt a dog adapted to your local ecosystem. If you’re in Alaska, getting a chihuahua is not a smart choice, and if you’re in the desert, a shaggy — or brachycephalic — dog is probably going to have a hard time.

“If a dog is well adapted to their ecosystem, they’re going to have more freedom to enjoy it without us having to put boots and coats [on them], and keep them in the air conditioning, and just have a little bit more freedom to be dogs.”

The growing backlash against breeding flat-faced dogs

Brachycephalic dogs’ poor quality of life raises more fundamental questions about whether we should be breeding dogs prone to painful chronic conditions in the first place.

In addition to respiratory distress, brachycephalic breeds are also more prone to eye diseases, digestive disorders, urinary tract infections, dental disease, pneumonia, skin disease, and intervertebral disk disease than other breeds.

“The French bulldog is a breed that’s been broken to accommodate us,” as Vox contributor Tove Danovich put it in a 2021 feature story about the breed.

Milne put it even more bluntly: “The suffering of [brachycephalic] animals is as tangible as if they were physically beaten on a regular basis.”

Humans continue to breed and buy Frenchies in vast quantities, despite their well-documented health issues, because we find their physical qualities so cute, Pierce said. In an essay for Aeon, she wrote about how the trend of dogs designed to look like cute human babies — round faces, big eyes, little noses — is hurting the very animals we so dearly love.

Sometimes, their behavior that appears cute is actually an attempt to cope with pain, Milne pointed out. There are loads of social media posts of Frenchies exhibiting abnormal behavior: sleeping sitting up — something they do because it’s harder to take in air while lying on their side — or sleeping with a hollow toy in their mouth in an effort to increase airflow.

A pug recovers from an anaesthetic and their mouth has been propped open with a bandage roll so they can breathe during recovery.
Courtesy of Emma Goodman Milne

As the Frenchie has grown in popularity, so too has the backlash — especially from veterinarians on the front lines, who see brachycephalic dogs suffering.

“The moral burden on the veterinary profession is absolutely massive. ... You’ve got people who’ve wanted to be veterinarians their whole lives, who are just morally crushed by the fact that they’re just picking up the pieces” from the sudden increase in Frenchies and their health issues, Milne said. “And breeders are just churning them out and making a fortune from them.”

In 2017, she founded Vets Against Brachycephalism, which has garnered support from 1,600 veterinarians across 66 countries.

Milne’s concerns began in veterinary school, as she learned about the common health issues faced by certain breeds (brachycephalics as well as others, like corgis and dachshunds, which are bred to have short limbs and long bodies). “I sort of thought to myself, ‘Well, this is a bit mad, because if we know that they’ve all got these [issues], why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?” she said, wondering why her profession wasn’t doing more to help stop the breeding of dogs known to be prone to serious welfare issues. “Then I got into practice, and it was just awful. You got to the point where you could predict, pretty much, what you were going to see and do and advise within probably 80 to 90 percent accuracy ... just based on what breed the dog was.”

The British Veterinary Association has called on the companion animal community to reduce demand by avoiding imagery of brachycephalic dogs in advertising and social media campaigns. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), in its policy on responsible breeding practices, states that it “discourages breeding companion animals with deleterious characteristics, since these features often require surgical correction or life-long medical or behavioral management.”

The original draft of the policy, written by the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Committee, stated that “companion animals exhibiting inherited characteristics that negatively affect the animal’s health and welfare should not be bred,” including brachycephalism. But the callout of brachycephalism, along with other conditions, was removed after opposition from breeding clubs. One of those was the American Kennel Club, whose chief veterinary officer, Jerry Klein, argued that such a policy could lead to breed bans and eventual extinction for some breeds. (The American Kennel Club makes much of its income from people registering their dogs, from which they get a certificate stating their dog is “purebred,” among other benefits.)

“Who’s going to make the decision about what dog is the right dog?” Klein told Vox. “You know, the perfect dog with no problems? What a bland world that would be.”

Klein said he doesn’t like to use the word “suffer” in relationship to the serious health issues experienced by many brachycephalic dogs. “I’ve had a bad back, that’s suffering,” he joked. “Trust me.” Rather, he said, the best way to put it is that these breeds “have a higher predilection for having certain predictable conditions related to breathing.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association didn’t respond to a question about whether brachycephalic dogs fall into the category of animals with “deleterious characteristics” as mentioned in its final policy.

Breed bans are precisely what Milne of Vets Against Brachycephalism wants.

“We’ve got 200, 300 breeds of dog,” she said. “If you took away 40, who cares? We never had those breeds before [modern pet ownership] ... Why are we so concerned about it? We should be concerned for their innate health, shouldn’t we?” said Milne. (Starting in the mid-1800s, the goals of breeding shifted largely from purpose-based — hunting and herding — to aesthetics.)

“Lots of people don’t understand the difference between breeds and species. ... Breeds don’t exist in nature, they’re completely man-made,” Milne said. “We as a species have to admit that we went badly wrong, and we need to drastically change that.”

Some countries have taken action. Last year, Norway banned the breeding of English bulldogs and cavalier King Charles spaniels; an appeals court overturned the English bulldog ban, which is currently under review in the country’s supreme court. In 2014, the Netherlands banned the breeding of around 20 short-snouted breeds, and lawmakers are now weighing a ban on possessing and advertising breeds with traits proven to cause health problems. Milne said similar efforts are underway elsewhere in Europe.

Klein believes a better approach would be getting Frenchie, pug, and English bulldog breeders to select for healthier dogs in order to reduce BOAS in the gene pool, and there are efforts to do so, he said, which are supported by the main brachycephalic breeding clubs. He also said dog trends are fickle — that breeds go through phases in popularity.

We should hope the Frenchie doesn’t maintain a 31-year hold on the title of America’s most popular dog breed, as the Labrador has — and that it’s not replaced with another breed so vulnerable to inherited disorders. The relationship between pet owners and their animals is already out of balance, with humans often taking much more than we give. Phasing out the breeding of dogs prone to serious welfare issues is the least we can do.

In the meantime, there are millions of dogs languishing in shelters and in need of a home. Preferably one with central air conditioning.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.