A dog called Piccalilli arrived at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in March this year. Struggling to breathe or even climb stairs, the canine’s sore ears, infected skin, airway problems and frequent vomiting required hours of surgery and medical treatment – and she’ll likely need extra care for the rest of her life.
But the six-year-old is not a neglected, abused animal found on the streets: she’s a purebred French Bulldog. Piccalilli’s extensive health issues go hand-in-hand with her breed, and the centre says her owner gave her up after vet bills started mounting.
With French Bulldogs, or ‘Frenchies’, gaining in popularity so much over the last few years, the Instagram-friendly breed is swift becoming the UK’s most popular dog, expected to knock Labradors off the number one spot in the coming months. A quick search on the social media site brings up millions upon millions of posts, with owners showing off their picture-perfect pups.
Now one of the UK’s most famous animal charities is reporting a surge in the number of Frenchies coming through its doors, left by owners who bought them for their cute flat faces with little understanding of the inherent health problems their appearance has come to signify.
In the first eight months of this year alone, 29 French Bulldogs arrived at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home – more than four times the number they saw across the whole of 2015, and almost triple last year’s intake.
And the rescue centre’s head vet believes social media has played its part.
"French Bulldogs are a classic example of overbreeding – people see celebrities touting them and getting thousands of likes on social media, and want one for themselves,” explains Shaun Opperman.
“I understand their appeal: with their big eyes and ears, they look like Disney characters, but their appearance is a real burden to them, because in many cases it takes away their ability to act like a real dog.
“Many of them can’t run or play for long because they struggle to breathe, their skin folds are prone to infection and they are also susceptible to eye problems.”
French Bulldogs are known for their exaggerated features, one of a number of brachycephalic breeds – shorter-nosed, flat-faced dogs such as Pugs, Boston Terriers and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels – that often have breathing issues due to narrow airways and deformed windpipes. The overbred dogs can easily overheat (as they can’t pant effectively) and often have heart problems thanks to the lack of sufficient oxygen in the blood.
The much-desired appearance – big heads in relation to bodies, wrinkled skin, short jaws and noses, compressed skull – also means they are prone to ear, eye, skin and dental conditions, issues with giving birth and spinal problems.
And Battersea says the dogs it sees almost all require specialist surgery to widen their airways and shorten their soft palate, which helps them breathe more easily.
Opperman describes it as “one of the biggest welfare issues that Battersea is facing”.
“In the first half of last year, we carried out just six of these surgeries – so far this year, we’ve already done 28. This operation is not without its risks and the recovery can be uncomfortable for the dog.
“Of course, in many cases, especially with younger dogs, it ends up really paying off – Battersea will always do all we can to help the animals in our care and it’s wonderful to see when they’re able to play and run without collapsing in a heap.
“However, you can’t help feeling that if owners knew the true cost to their health this breed pays, they’d be horrified.”
What’s more, the increased demand for Frenchies encourages unscrupulous breeding and illegal importation, which means even more dogs are passing severe medical problems down the line – though it’s fair to point out that even reputable breeders cannot breed out generations of health conditions inherent in dogs of a particular look.
If someone buys a dog for its appearance or because it’s fashionable (and psychologists suggest that buying rather than rehoming taps into the ‘disposable desire’ part of our psyche), it’s unsurprising those same people haven’t done enough research to know that there are myriad health problems with certain breeds, and that they are contributing to a damaging trend.
In February this year, leading veterinary experts came together to condemn the rise in demand, with heads of the British Veterinary Association, RSPCA and the Dogs Trust warning that French Bulldogs’ genetic problems were being exacerbated by the newfound popularity.
Battersea reports that French Bulldogs stay in its kennels longer than other breeds because they require so much vetinary intervention before they can be rehomed, staying for an average of 59 days compared to the overall average of 35.
If you’re considering rehoming a dog, visit battersea.org.uk for more information, or find a local rescue centre.
Images: Battersea / Mike Tinnion