Human-centered interests in designer dogs have derailed natural selection.
It’s well known that bulldogs suffer from a variety of physical ailments that make them particularly unhealthy—and that many are the unfortunate byproducts of breeding to the extremes of the same physical features that win them prizes and acclaim. As a result, the bulldog’s lifespan is relatively short, with most living on average a mere 8 years according to one recent study by the National Institutes of Health. (Brian Handwork, Bulldogs Are Dangerously Unhealthy, But There May Not Be Enough Diversity in Their Genes to Save Them)
Regardless of these dogs’ appeal and appealing dispositions, those who really love them should stop breeding them, and the informed should never consider buying a purpose-bred one, regardless of how adorable the puppies may seem. They make most people smile, but they make me sad and angry. (Michael W. Fox, Popularity Doesn’t Justify Breeding Dogs With Shorter and Wider Heads“)
Dogs come in numerous sizes and shapes. They also display enormous variation in different parts of their bodies, including the shape and size of their head, their ears, and their tails.
All of these differences come from humans practicing artificial selection, now more often called human selection, and deciding which traits are desirable and which are not. Human selection is a form of genetic engineering, and because there are large differences in human tastes, it’s not surprising that there are up to 340 recognized dog breeds, depending on who’s doing the counting. Regardless of the number, it’s clear humans have made many different types of radically different dogs, all of whom descended from wolves and all of whom are referred to as Canis lupus familiaris. (See “Dumping the Dog Domestication Dump Theory Once and For All.“)
A few days ago, right after a few dogs with the bulldog phenotype walked by us while we were sitting outside, a woman named Eve asked me, “Why in the world do people make these types of dogs?” She didn’t know that I study and write about dogs and seemed extremely upset. I thought I knew why she asked, but I went ahead and asked her why she was interested in these dogs. Eve said, “You know, they can hardly breathe because of their smashed-in faces. I’ve also heard they die young and some can’t mate or give birth on their own.”
I nodded and told her I agreed and also was very concerned. I also mentioned that I know something about dogs and asked if she’d like to know more. Eve eagerly said “Yes,” and we had an interesting discussion about how dogs came to be or as author and dog expert Mark Derr, puts it, how dogs became dogs.
Eve’s use of the word “make” made me think about two excellent books about how different breeds came about titled The Invention of the Modern Dog: Breed and Blood in Victorian Britain and A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man’s Best Friend. (For an interview about this book see “A Matter of Breeding: How We’ve Greatly Harmed BFF Dogs.”) Indeed, humans have consciously and deliberately made or invented different breeds based on what they desired, for a wide variety of reasons. The well-being of the dogs themselves was pretty much ignored or played down, including dogs who have trouble breathing, mating, or giving birth.
I began by saying that these types of dogs are called brachycephalic dogs because they’re short-headed and have fairly flat faces. And, there are a number of different and potentially serious health concerns. Eve seemed to know all this and was very upset that people would continue making these dogs despite the fact that many had very compromised lives. When she asked me why people would make and buy these dogs, I simply said something like, “They must like them and find them attractive.” Eve nodded in disgust.article continues after advertisement
Human-centered interests override dog well-being: The dogs pay a huge price for humans’ choices
I didn’t know anything about their origin, but later I found a brief explanation of why they exist. It reads: “If short-nosed dogs are so prone to health problems, then why are they so popular? And how did they come to be in the first place?
“A study published in PLOS One, suggests two theories. One is that certain breeds, such as the English bulldog, were selectively bred to develop this trait in order to make them better at fighting. It was believed that shorter snouts created stronger jaws that would give these dogs an advantage in fighting and in hunting.
“Another theory is that ancient dog owners tended to choose and breed smaller, short-nosed dogs because the shape of the head reminded them of human infants.
“As for why the popularity of these dogs persists in spite of their associated health risks — for one thing, they’re just really cute. For another, these breeds have their own traits that make them appealing to dog lovers. When you take the whole dog into consideration, dealing with the health challenges of these breeds is a small price to pay for companionship.” (My emphasis)
The last sentence, “When you take the whole dog into consideration, dealing with the health challenges of these breeds is a small price to pay for companionship,” demonstrates just how selfish human selection can be. Being born with pre-existing serious health concerns isn’t a small price to pay for the dogs themselves, and I don’t see how it could be a small price to pay by humans for relatively short-lived companionship or for the difficult lives these dog beings have.article continues after advertisement
Some of the risk factors associated with brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) include: Obese dogs are twice as likely to shows signs of BOAS compared to dogs with normal body condition. Upper respiratory disorders were the cause of death for 17 percent of dogs with extreme brachycephalic conformation (pugs, bulldogs and French bulldogs) compared to 0 percent for all other breeds of dogs. The lifespan of dogs with extreme brachycephalic conformation is younger (8.6 years) compared to all other breeds of dogs (12.7 years). (See “The Cost of Cuteness: Health and Welfare Issues Associated with Brachycephalic Dog Breeds,” “The Price French Bulldogs Pay for Being So Cute,” and “English Bulldogs: Dying to Please.”)
It also turns out that some brachycephalic dogs can’t breed on their own and some can’t give birth naturally. For example, for French bulldogs, “mating on their own is very difficult because most female French bulldogs have very narrow hips. This makes it extremely difficult for the male French bulldog to mount the female for reproductive purposes because their hips are simply too narrow to achieve this. As a result of this, breeding French bulldogs usually requires artificial insemination so as to be able to achieve mating and eventual conception.” These procedures can be pretty pricey, so we’re also told, “If you are considering acquiring a French bulldog and you intend to have a litter, make sure you bear this additional cost in mind.” And of course, the well-being of the dogs themselves must be given serious consideration.
Would natural selection have produced dogs who have difficulty breeding or giving birth?
Returning to my discussion with Eve, I asked her if she wanted to know something about different forms of natural selection and how human selection has derailed these processes. She said she did, so I briefly explained that biologists generally categorize different forms of natural selection as stabilizing, directional, and disruptive or diversifying selection. article continues after advertisement
Stabilizing selection is “a type of natural selection in which genetic diversity decreases and the population mean stabilizes on a particular trait value.” For example, dog breeders generally practice artificial stabilizing selection when they try to produce dogs to satisfy breed standards.
Directional selection “is a mode of natural selection in which an extreme phenotype is favored over other phenotypes, causing the allele frequency to shift over time in the direction of that phenotype.” A simple example would be situations in which there would be selection for body size (large, medium, or small), running speed (slow or fast), or dull or bright coloration.
Finally, when disruptive selection occurs, extremes of a trait are favored over intermediate forms of that specific trait. An example of disruptive selection, also called “diversifying selection” would be the following: “if a population of rabbits occurred in an environment that had areas of black rocks as well as areas of white rocks, the rabbits with black fur would be able to hide from predators amongst the black rocks, and the rabbits with white fur likewise amongst the white rocks. The rabbits with grey fur, however, would stand out in all areas of the habitat, and would thereby suffer greater predation.” Disruptive selection is the opposite of stabilizing selection.
Concerning brachycephalic dogs, stabilizing selection imposed by humans has centered on phenotypic traits—short heads, flat faces, and in some cases narrow hips—that don’t serve these dogs well. Obviously, if individuals can’t breed on their own or have natural births, they wouldn’t survive without human help, and clearly, without human aid, these individuals and breeds would disappear over time.article continues after advertisement
In combination, these traits along with breathing difficulties and other risk factors would have spelled doom for individuals of these species. Yet, they’re among the most desired dog breeds for solely selfish human ends. I fail to come to terms with how people who favor these dogs and know what’s in store for them deal with the cognitive dissonance they feel, or at least I hope they feel. Eve’s question hits the proverbial nail on the head.
In addition to these maladies, just today I learned that there are more problems that are associated with squished faces. In an essay by Donna Lu called “Squished faces aren’t the only cause of bulldog breathing difficulties,” we read, “Many English and French bulldogs develop breathing difficulties, and the flat faces of these breeds have long been thought to be responsible, but now a gene mutation in these dogs suggests that face shape isn’t the only culprit.” It turns out that a mutation in a gene called ADAMTS3 can influence the development and maintenance of the lymphatic system and cause fluid retention and swelling. One also wonders if this mutation would be phased out over time without human intervention.
Where’s the dog in all of these discussions?
In 2017, the American Kennel Club listed two brachycephalic breeds (French bulldogs and bulldogs) in its top 10 most popular breeds, and eight brachycephalic breeds (French bulldogs, bulldogs, boxers, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, shih tzus, Boston terriers, mastiffs, and pugs) are in the top 31 most popular breeds. The numbers of AKC-registered bulldogs and French bulldogs increased by 69 percent and 476 percent, respectively, from 2006-2016. (Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association)
U.K. kennel club registrations of pugs and bulldogs have climbed from 2004 to 2013; the number of pugs has increased from 1,675 in 2004 to 8,071 in 2013; and French bulldogs also rose from 350 to 6,990. (Michael W. Fox, Popularity Doesn’t Justify Breeding Dogs With Shorter and Wider Heads)
“Breeders often blame health ills on unscrupulous, puppy mill-type breeders who breed sick and otherwise unsuitable dogs indiscriminately. It’s true that the odds of getting a healthier individual bulldog are far better when buyers deal with credible breeders who screen for health issues in advance. But when it comes to the health of the breed as a whole, the genes tell a different story,” says Niels Pedersen, professor emeritus of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “Puppy mill breeders can run down the genetics of a popular breed in a hurry, but that doesn’t appear to apply where the bulldog is concerned. The mills aren’t producing dogs that are much different genetically as far as we could see than the ones being bred properly.
Before Eve and I parted, I thanked her for asking her question and we began wondering, “Where’s the dog in all of these discussions?” People make up all sorts of excuses for why dogs who are doomed from the start continue to be made, and as I mentioned above, the well-being of individual dogs plays second fiddle. Clearly, certain breeds are perpetuated because humans want them and the dogs’ well-being makes little to no difference to them. Human selection clearly has derailed natural selection.
We also took a short diversion into talking about two common practices to which many dogs are subjected, namely, tail docking and ear cropping. Eve asked, “If people want dogs with certain types of ears and tails, why don’t they breed them rather than disfigure them?” I told her this was a great question, but it also raises many issues that go beyond much of what we were talking about. She persisted but agreed, and then asked, “These people don’t especially care about the dogs, do they?” I said that some people to whom I’ve spoken who buy these dogs do, in fact, express concern for these dogs.
It turns out that I had a hard time convincing Eve of this and then she casually asked, “Why do people get so upset with genetically engineered lab animals, but still choose to produce these maladapted dogs?”
Her question gave me pause, because I know a few people who buy these dogs because they truly love them, and at the same are offended by companies and laboratories in which various strains of mice are created, millions of whom live horrific lives before they’re killed.
I don’t know how they deal with the cognitive dissonance they likely feel but rarely express. Along these lines, Eve’s last comment was, “How can anyone with a moral conscience breed or buy one of these genetically engineered monsters?”
I honestly felt this was a bit strong, however, she wouldn’t backpedal. Before we finally said our final goodbyes, Eve told that she wasn’t trying to be obnoxious or in anyone’s face, but rather was deeply passionate about all we’d been talking about. I realized she’d been thinking about the ethics of dog breeding for a long while and finally could safely air her views. Thank you, Eve.
Where to from here?
Many breeders simply deny that the bulldog has any unusual problems. It is a myth that the Bulldog is inherently unhealthy by virtue of its conformation, declares the Bulldog Club of America’s official statement on the health of the breed. Yet a Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine study that investigated causes of death for more than 70,000 dogs between 1984 and 2004, found that bulldogs were the second most likely breed to die of congenital disease. (Newfoundlands were most likely.)
It is fascinating to speculate how dogs and humans might co-evolve further. We cannot say exactly what the domestic dogs of the future will look like because we do not know what future humans will need and therefore value. But pedigree dogs, as they are currently defined, are doomed. Inherited disorders will only become more and more common unless the breeding rules are changed. (Dr. Paul McGreevy, We must breed happier, healthier dogs, New Scientist, October 8, 2008)
Thanks to Eve for talking with me about all of the above. We both agreed that dogs who are doomed shouldn’t continue to be made or invented. So, too, does renowned Australian veterinarian, Dr. Paul McGreevy. There are numerous other healthy choices available. Of course, we’re not alone in coming to this conclusion.
I’m also interested in the numerous ways in which humans influence dogs’ lives when I ponder how dogs would do in a world without humans as human selection is replaced by natural selection and different forms of “reverse engineering” occur without us and they’ll have to make it on their own. As we ponder what a world without humans will be like for dogs, not only do we need to focus on who dogs are, but we also need to consider the nature of dog-human relationships and the nature of dog-other animal relationships.
Many challenging questions arise when we consider the fate of dogs in a world in which humans disappear and are finally gone. However, it’s not at all clear how they will do, and there’s no reason to think they’d disappear as we leave the scene. When people talk with their dog they often ask something like, “What would you do without me?” or say, “You would never survive without me.” I don’t think this is so, and it’s highly likely that some or many dogs might do very well without their or other humans.
Musing about how dogs will do without us made me go full circle back to her original question, “Why in the world do people make these types of dogs?” While we don’t really know, one thing is very clear, namely, that dogs who are doomed from birth to have shortened and compromised lives most likely will be selected out of existence. Being unable to breathe normally or to mate or to give birth are negative traits that won’t last very long. Countless dogs are currently trying to adapt to an increasingly human-dominated world that many find highly stressful, and we can do a lot, right now, to reduce the number of dogs who are born possessing human chosen traits that harm them from the start, by phasing out the conscious breeding of these individuals. (For more on a historical perspective on bulldogs see “Bringing Back the Real Bulldog” by David Hancock.)
The most important question to which to give serious attention is, “Where’s the dog?” in these discussions. Their well-being must come first and foremost. They shouldn’t be relegated to being a sideshow to our whims. Our selfish desires must play second fiddle and our choices about which dogs to make or to invent must reflect this moral compass.
Stay tuned for further discussion on the ethics of dog breeding and other very important and touchy topics about dog-human relationships. It’s surely a very exciting time to be interested in dog behavior, the nature of dog-human interactions, and the choices some humans make about the dogs they produce and buy.
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018.
_____. and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California. 2019.
Brandow, Michael. A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man’s Best Friend. Beacon Press, Boston, 2015. (For an interview about this book see “A Matter of Breeding: How We’ve Greatly Harmed BFF Dogs,” Psychology Today, January 20, 2015.
Coren, Stanley. “Is the English Bulldog a Doomed Breed?” Psychology Today, August 3, 2016.
Fleming, J. M. et al. “Mortality in North American Dogs from 1984 to 2004: An Investigation into Age‐, Size‐, and Breed‐Related Causes of Death.” Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 2011.
Handwork, Brian. “Bulldogs Are Dangerously Unhealthy, But There May Not Be Enough Diversity in Their Genes to Save Them.” Smithsonian.com, July 29, 2016.
Lu, Donna. “Squished faces aren’t the only cause of bulldog breathing difficulties.” New Scientist, May 16, 2019.
Marchant, Thomas et al. “An ADAMTS3 missense variant is associated with Norwich Terrier upper airway syndrome.” PLOS Genetics. 2019.
Pierce, Jessica. Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016.
_____. All Dogs Go to Heaven. Psychology Today. There are many essays here on the ethics of pet keeping.
Worboys, Michael, Julie-Marie Strange, and Neil Pemberton. The Invention of the Modern Dog: Breed and Blood in Victorian Britain. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2018.
THE COST OF CUTENESS: Health and Welfare Issues Associated with Brachycephalic Dog Breeds. Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.