Our petition was successful: action has started, with a meeting in London.
In May 2016, VetHelpDirect launched a petition, to be signed by vets and vet nurses only, calling for action to deal with the suffering of short-nosed breeds of dogs. The professions responded vocally, with thousands signing, with hundreds adding their comments to express their frustration with the current situation. You can read these for yourself, but typical examples include:
- I find it distressing to watch these poor animals fighting for breath whilst owners think it is “cute”
- I see problems at work more and more due to extremes in these breeds
- Dogs and cats should not be purposely bred to have conformation that will cause suffering
Our petition was sent messages of support by BSAVA, BVA, RSPCA, PDSA and the Dog Breeding Reform Group, and the Kennel Club responded by calling a special meeting at the Kennel Club HQ in London to discuss the issue: this took place this week, on 15th June. The stated purpose of the meeting was “to allow current research and resources available to dog owners and breeders to be presented, with a view to discussions on where we are now, and how we could productively collaborate to improve the health of dogs now and to the future.”
I attended the meeting on behalf of those who signed the petition. I posted a live stream of the presentations to my Facebook page, where the videos can still be viewed by anyone interested.
Vet Compass: helping to define the prevalence of BOAS
Dan O’Neill, from RVC, spoke first, introducing Vet Compass, an innovative research tool which pulls data from 450 UK vet practices to spot trends in pet health and disease. Dan referenced two relevant VetCompass papers. The first looked at upper respiratory tract (URT) disorders, comparing Pugs, Frenchies and Bulldogs to three “non-extreme brachycephalics” – Border Terriers, West Highland White Terriers and Yorkshire Terriers. Overall across the 6 breeds,15.8% had at least one URT disorder – but the “extremes” had 22% and the “less-extremes” 9.7%. The second paper, just published, explored the most common disorders in Pugs, referencing corneal ulcers and obesity as well as BOAS. Dan made the point that there may be some issues with “normalisation” (i.e. some degree of breathing difficulty being “normal for the breed”) and also with how vets categorise respiratory problems. He suggested that BOAS (seen at 5.6%) probably referred to a significant degree of disease to have been categorised as such.
The Cranio Facial Ratio: an objective tool to measure progress?
Rowena Packer, also from RVC, was the next speaker and she started with a review of her research from three years ago which showed that the shorter the muzzle, the narrower the nostril openings and the thicker the neck, the bigger the BOAS problem. She introduced a way of objectively measuring the degree of brachocephaly: this is calculated by using a standard 1 metre long soft measuring tape, making two measurements:
- First, the muzzle length (ML): from the tip of the nose to just between the eyes where the inside corners of the eyes meet (the so called “muzzle stop”)
- Second, the cranial length (CL), which is the distance from the muzzle stop to the occipital protruberance at the back of the skull.
- The ratio of the Muzzle Length (ML) divided by the Cranial Length (CL) is known as the Cranio Facial Ratio (CFR).
Rowena then showed graphs comparing the CFR with the incidence of Brachy Cephalic Obstructive Syndrome (BOAS). She presented compelling evidence that dogs with a CFR of less than 0.2 were at extremely high risk of BOAS. The average pug CFR is 0.08 while the Peke and Japanese Chin are even lower.
Rowena stressed that the biggest conformational indicator of BOAS risk is muzzle length, and she showed how, in theory, it would be possible to gradually lengthen the muzzle of these breeds over years, by only choosing to breed from dogs with a higher CFR. Perhaps as an indication of a possible way forwards, the Norwegian Kennel Club has recently stated that they are aiming to have a minimum CFR of 0.5.Rowena also mentioned other factors that obesity has a significant deleterious effect on BOAS.
Breathing chambers and respiratory analysis: another way to assess BOAS?
Jane Ladlow, from the University of Cambridge, then discussed how she has used a method involving a breathing chamber to measure respiratory function, known as Whole Body Barometric Plethysmography (WBBP), comparing measurements taken at rest with those after exercise. She was able to produce graphs that can be objectively used to measure the degree of BOAS, using computer analysis to produce a “BOAS index” on a score between 0 and 100. She found a correlation between stenotic (narrowed) upper nostril openings and a high BOAS index, especially in French Bulldogs but also in Pugs. She has used the BOAS index to demonstrate the efficacy of the airway surgery that she carries out on dogs that suffer from BOAS, with significant improvements in the score post-surgery. However her technique may provide a useful measurable way of assessing the severity of BOAS within specific breeds. She also mentioned how sound wave analysis (e.g. using a smartphone app) may provide a portable way of assessing BOAS in the future.
Genetic tests: a longer term possibility
Next, David Sargan from Cambridge University described his work with Pugs, French Bulldogs and Bulldogs, taking respiratory and other measurements as well as DNA samples from these breeds and comparing them with those from dogs with more normal skull shape. He mentioned how results from the brachycephalic dogs, split between BOAS affected and BOAS unaffected dogs, could be compared with dogs with normal skulls, perhaps working towards an ultimate goal of having some sort of DNA test to guide future breeding strategies. However this is still very much in the pipeline: he is not yet sure that this will become a reality, and he knows that there will be several more years of work involved.
The importance of changing public perception of “normal” in brachycephalic breeds
Aimee Llewellyn-Zaidi, a geneticist from the Kennel Club, then spoke about the “complexity” of the BOAS problem, explaining how the Kennel Club has assisted with dealing with the subject in many ways, including funding Vet Compass, research at Cambridge, and other areas. She also highlighted other areas of focus, including promoting breed health through education, including training of judges (e.g. reminding them about the significance of obesity as an aggravating factor in BOAS). She spoke about the importance of public perception, and the importance of trying to change what the public see as “normal” for the extreme brachycephalic breeds.
Vets and vet nurses have had enough of seeing brachycephalic dogs suffer
Finally, I gave a short presentation, describing the grassroots background to the petition, and explaining how “vets and nurses on the ground” have had enough of witnessing brachycephalic dogs suffering.
So what happens next?
After the day’s presentations, there was a short discussion about what might happen next. Veterinary surgeon and dog owner, Professor Steve Dean of the Kennel Club, who’d chaired the day, committed the Kennel Club to assisting with the establishment of the Working Group that was called for by our petition, including BVA, RSPCA, Dogs Trust, Animal Health Trust and the RCVS. Professor Dean then asked each attendee to go back to discuss the issue further with the people who they represent, and to write an A4 page of suggested actions which those people can take to deal with the issue.
Interestingly, he asked that nobody should mention “breed standards”. In one sense, this may be understandable. Breed standards are an issue for the Kennel Club to review: no other group has the power to do this. However, given that the breed standard is defined as “a picture in words that describes each breed of pedigree dog”, and given that it was clearly established during the day that BOAS is directly related to the length of a dog’s muzzle, it is hard to see how the situation will improve if the Breed Standard for the brachycephalic breeds remains unchanged.
Have your say now – add your comments below
Nonetheless, in the spirit of supporting Professor Dean in his objectives, it will be helpful if petition signers can assist in drawing up a list of what we, as vets and nurses, can do ourselves to improve the issue of BOAS in our patients.
Please make any suggestions in the comments below, and I will use them to draw up an appropriate document that reflects our joint sentiment.