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Flat-faced dogs remain wildly popular despite severe health risks

Flat-faced dog breeds like French and English Bulldogs continue to captivate pet owners, despite their susceptibility to severe hereditary diseases.

This enduring affection is a paradox that researchers at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary have set out to understand by investigating the psychology and attitudes of dog lovers who remain devoted to flat-faced dogs.

These breeds, including Pugs and Boston Terriers, command an extensive following in both the United States and Europe. Yet, flat-faced dogs are predisposed to a variety of health complications. More than half are plagued by respiratory problems, while eye-related issues are a frequent concern. 

Childbirth also presents a daunting hurdle, as over 80 percent require Cesarean-sections. Furthermore, their life expectancy is three to four years less than what would typically be expected among dogs of a similar size. 

Zsófia Bognár is a PhD student in the ELTE Department of Ethology and the lead author of the study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

“Previously, we observed that flat-faced breeds are more inclined to form eye contact with humans. We assumed that this trait is appealing to owners. We also considered the possibility that the enthusiasts of these dogs might not be aware of the innate health issues,” said Bognár.

Surprising results 

The researchers conducted an online survey, where participants were shown 25 pairs of photos featuring dogs looking directly into the camera and dogs looking away. They evaluated not just the respondents’ preference for the pictures but also their personality traits, their inclination towards flat-faced dogs, and their awareness of these breeds’ health issues. A total of 1,156 individuals participated, and some of the results were surprising.

Contrary to initial expectations, respondents who favored flat-faced breeds showed no discernible pattern in their selection of images, suggesting that the ability of these dogs to make eye contact does not necessarily play a significant role in their popularity.

However, those who opted for photos of dogs gazing directly at the camera were found to be sociable, easily able to make friends, and capable of empathizing with the perspectives of others.

One striking observation was the level of awareness regarding the health issues of these breeds among respondents who expressed an affinity for flat-faced dogs.

Nearly all (99%) associated flat-faced breeds with breathing difficulties, 90% linked them with dystocia, and 61% associated them with corneal ulceration. Very few associated them with fewer than four health problems, suggesting that the public is largely informed about the health problems that afflict these breeds.

Fans of flat-faced dogs share certain traits

The study also unearthed certain characteristics of flat-faced dog enthusiasts. Compared to those indifferent or averse to these breeds, fans of flat-faced dogs were found to be younger, less educated, and generally lacking in professional experience with dogs.

Women with children were more likely to be enthusiasts than the neutral group, while those with high emotional empathy, or the ability to deeply sympathize with the suffering of other beings, were more likely to be fans compared to those who disliked flat-faced breeds.

“We expected that one of the main attractiveness of flat-faced dogs lies in their large eyes and that their owners would be delighted when the dogs look at them,” said study co-author Eniko Kubinyi. “However, we did not find this to be true, at least not from the photographs. It is also not true that enthusiasts of flat-faced breeds are unaware of the dogs’ health problems or are insensitive to their emotions.”

“On the other hand, it has been revealed that they are relatively inexperienced dog owners. Thus, it is most likely that they are unaware of the dogs’ communication signals, may not necessarily recognize signs of pain, and likely consider health problems as normal breed characteristics.

“For example, a snoring and grunting Bulldog appears cute to them, rather than sick and struggling for breath.”

Health issues are not a deterrent 

The study suggests that these enthusiasts’ awareness of the health challenges of flat-faced dogs does not serve as a deterrent to their affection. They maintain a strong affinity for these dogs despite understanding the health struggles they could face. 

“In many countries, there are awareness campaigns about the health issues of flat-faced breeds. However, the growing popularity of flat-faced dogs suggests that these campaigns are not very effective,” said Bognár.

“It is clear that simply listing the health problems does not deter people from purchasing these dogs. Instead, the emphasis should be on highlighting that health issues should not be considered normal or acceptable characteristics because they often cause pain and suffering for the dogs. Dog owners need to be made aware that their choices play a significant role in shaping the health of dog breeds.”

This raises vital questions about the way we approach pet ownership and the responsibilities that come with it. The research highlights the importance of educating potential dog owners – not just about the potential health issues that certain breeds face – but also about how to recognize and respond to signs of discomfort or distress in their pets. 


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