Not a 'typical dog': the pug health crisis

New research from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) paints a grim picture of the state of health of the pug - a breed whose popularity skyrocketed in recent years, and whose extreme features are at the root of a host of health issues.

"The pugs in the UK are now substantially different and largely worse than non-pugs," the RVC states. "Pugs are almost twice as likely to experience one or more disorders annually compared with other dogs. 

"These findings suggest the pug can no longer be considered a ‘typical dog’ from a health perspective and urgent action is required to reduce the high rate of health issues associated with the breed."

While it was fairly common knowledge that the flat face, narrow nostrils, shallow eye sockets, wrinkled skin and tendency towards obesity were all detrimental to the dogs' health, the RVC says that "the full scale of the health crisis in Pugs has not been fully understood".

The study, led by the RVC’s VetCompass programme, compared the health of random samples of 4,308 pugs and 21,835 non-pugs, extracting information on all disorders recorded in each dog over a single year.
Pugs were found to be 1.9 times as likely to have one or more disorders recorded in a single year compared to other dogs, indicating a poor overall health status in the breed.

Dr Dan O’Neill, Associate Professor in Companion Animal Epidemiology at the RVC and lead author of the paper, said, “Although hugely popular as pets, we now know that several severe health issues are linked to the extreme body shape of Pugs that many humans find so cute. It is time now that we focus on the health of the dog rather than the whims of the owner when we are choosing what type of dog to own.”
The study looked at the 40 most common disorders across pugs and non-pugs, finding that pugs are at a higher risk of 23 out of 40 disorders and at lower risk of only seven. Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS), which causes animals to struggle breathing, is the disorder with the highest risk in pugs, who are "almost 54 times more likely to have the condition".

Pugs are also about 51 times more likely to have stenotic nares (narrow nostrils), adding to the breed's breathing issues. Other conditions they are at higher risk of compared to other dogs include eye ulceration, skinfold infections, ear discharge, allergic skin disorder, demodectic mange, retained baby teeth and obesity.

Pugs were found to be at significantly lower risk of heart murmur, lipoma, aggression and wounds. Overall, the study found that pugs have "substantially poorer health" than non-pugs.

The situation is expected to get worse as the pug population in the UK, still overall young, starts ageing and developing more health issues.

Image by L Stannard

"The findings suggest that many Pugs may suffer from seriously compromised health and welfare because of the extreme body shape that humanity expects of this breed," the RVC states. "To correct this, the body shape of pugs must shift towards a more moderate, and less extreme, conformation if we are to reduce these health and welfare issues for pugs in the UK. 

"While we are waiting for these changes in the breed that can reduce these health problems, the advice from experts to the public is to 'stop and think before buying a flat-faced dog'."
Jaya Sahota, co-author and RVC veterinary student, said, “Widespread ownership of pugs with extreme facial and body conformations should be discouraged until measures are in place to ensure stricter and more acceptable breed standards.”

In another recent RVC study, which looked at various dog breeds as well as crossbreeds' average life expectancy at birth, the pug placed close to the bottom with only 7.7 years; the French bulldog and English bulldog, two other brachycephalic breeds, placed just below as the bottom two.
Justine Shotton, British Veterinary Association (BVA) President, said, "These statistics are shocking but, sadly, they will not be surprising to our members. Vet teams see pugs with these distressing health problems – from breathing difficulties to eye ulcers and painful spine abnormalities - in veterinary practices across the UK on a daily basis.

“This study clearly demonstrates how it is the extreme characteristics many owners find so appealing, such as squashed faces, big eyes and curly tails, which are seriously compromising pugs’ health and welfare and often result in a lifetime of suffering. While these extreme, unhealthy characteristics remain, we will continue to strongly recommend potential owners do not buy brachycephalic breeds such as pugs.”

Date: 18/05/2022