French and English Bulldogs are among the most popular breeds in both the United States and Europe, with Pugs and Boston Terriers also having a significant fan base. This is surprising considering the innate health problems these breeds face.
At least half these flat-faced dogs struggle with breathing difficulties, they frequently have eye problems, and over eighty percent of them require C-sections during delivery. Due to their health issues, flat-faced dogs typically live three to four years less than what would be expected based on their body size. The life expectancy of French Bulldogs is only around four and a half years.
Veterinarians shake their heads and animal welfare activists bemoan the problem but no one is quite sure why the breeds are so popular.
"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 Zsófia Bognár, PhD student at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary, and the lead author of a study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
The researchers presented 25 pairs of photos of dogs looking into the camera and looking away, in an online survey. Furthermore, they assessed the respondents' personality traits, whether they liked flat-faced dogs, and whether they were aware of their health problems. A total of 1,156 participants took part in the survey.
Some results contradicted the researchers' expectations. It turned out that those who had a positive attitude towards flat-faced breeds randomly selected among the images. This finding suggests that despite the inclination of these dogs to form eye contact, it likely does not play a role in their popularity.
On the other hand, those who preferred the photos of dogs looking into the camera were those who were sociable, easily made friends, and were capable of putting themselves in the position and perspective of others.
Health problems are widely recognized
Interestingly, the respondents who liked flat-faced dogs were the most aware of the health problems. Overall, 99 percent of the respondents associated flat-faced breeds with breathing difficulties, 90 percent with difficult deliveries, 61 percent with corneal ulceration, and only a few respondents associated them with fewer than four health problems. So, the health issues associated with flat-face are very much in public awareness.
In addition, it was also revealed that compared to the group who were neutral towards or disliked flat-faced breeds, enthusiasts of flat-faced dogs tend to be younger, have lower levels of education, and typically have no professional experience with dogs.
The enthusiasts are more likely to be women and have children and have higher emotional empathy, meaning they are more inclined to feel for the suffering of another living being.
"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 Eniko Kubinyi, head of the MTA-ELTE "Momentum" Companion Animal Research Group at ELTE. "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," Kubinyi said.
For example, a snoring and grunting Bulldog appears cute to them, rather than sick and struggling for breath."
According to the results, therefore, even though enthusiasts of flat-faced dogs are aware of the innate health problems of these breeds, it does not discourage them from continuing to love these dogs and to choose them over other breeds.