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Bulldogs are prone to health problems. New Hampshire could limit their breeding

French bulldogs have skyrocketed in popularity. Legislation being considered in New Hampshire could put rules on breeding ones with chronic breathing problems.
Sarah Stier
Getty Images for Westminster Kennel Club
French bulldogs have skyrocketed in popularity. Legislation being considered in New Hampshire could put rules on breeding ones with chronic breathing problems.

With their smushed-in faces and button noses, French bulldogs, pugs and bulldogs are among the most popular breeds in the U.S. But their stout stature has a dark side: the breeds are prone to health problems, particularly with their breathing.

Now, New Hampshire could become the first state in the country to limit the breeding of those dogs. Lawmakers will vote this week on a bill that would prohibit breeding dogs that have a physical trait, like being short-nosed, that "causes suffering."

Bulldogs and other flat-faced breeds can have loud, labored breathing, stemming from brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome. The dogs have been bred to have shortened skulls, but they still have large amounts of skin and soft tissue, including in their mouths. That obstructs their breathing, particularly putting them at risk of heat stroke, since dogs must pant to cool down.

"A lot of people will see how cute they are on social media," says Ellen Read, a New Hampshire representative who introduced the legislation. "People will buy these very cute, very flat-faced puppies from reputable breeders. You think they're healthy and then come to find out that the animal needs surgery just so it can breathe."

Supporters of the legislation say it's about ensuring the best quality of life for the dogs and protecting dog owners from unknowingly getting dogs that need medical treatment costing thousands of dollars. While the bill is the first of its kind for a U.S. state, countries like Norway and the Netherlands have already taken steps to put breeding restrictions on "breathing-impaired breeds."

Read says the legislation is still being debated, but she supports a version of the bill that would require breeders to have their dogs checked for breathing problems by a veterinarian before they breed them. Knowingly breeding French bulldogs, pugs and bulldogs with serious breathing issues would be a civil penalty, potentially involving a fine.

"The bill isn't taking anyone's dog away," Read says "It's not getting rid of certain breeds. What it's doing is ensuring that the breeding practices are done ethically. And so this bill prohibits, quite simply, breeding two individual animals that have identical deformities that cause suffering."

Opposition to the legislation has been strong from purebred dog groups, including the American Kennel Club.

"Bills like this put our breeders in a defensive posture," says Phil Guidry, director of policy analysis for the American Kennel Club. "This is absolutely extremist. Why go down this road of extremism when we can take the opportunity to honor that common ground and work together in a way that we all agree is a best next step for dogs?"

Guidry says his group supports educating breeders about best practices, instead of imposing penalties that target specific breeds. Bulldog groups say the dogs can live healthy lives and many of the serious health problems can be attributed to irresponsible breeders.

Still, scientific studies show that given the level of inbreeding within some dog breeds, eliminating their health problems through breeding is challenging. Today's purebred bulldogs originated from a small group of founding animals, meaning there may not be enough genetic diversity within the current population to breed out problematic traits. Some veterinarians argue the exaggerated look of the dog's body exacerbates their health problems.

Studies show that short-nosed breeds experience more health issues than other dogs, including eye, spine, and skin problems. Because of their altered body shape, many cannot give birth naturally and have to deliver puppies by cesarean section.

The look of bulldogs, pugs and French bulldogs is controlled by the national club for each breed, which defines a "breed standard." For French bulldogs, it requires that thenose be "extremely short." In 2021, in response to criticism, the U.K.'s Kennel Club amended its French bulldog standard to specify that the dog's muzzle should be "well-defined."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Lauren Sommer
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.