Le Grand Frenchie Boom


French bulldogs have a flat face, restricting their airflow and increasing risk of respiratory and other health problems. Photo Courtesy of The Spruce Pets

Hannah Choy, Editor

Whether you know them by the theft of Lady Gaga’s dogs last year, or because of Winston’s win in the 2022 National Dog Show, French bulldogs are quickly becoming an iconic dog breed in the United States. In fact, the American Kennel Club (AKC) named French bulldogs, also known as Frenchies, as America’s second most popular dog breed in 2021. Since 2009, the breed has experienced a growth of 830% in AKC registrations and become a fixture in pop culture: French bulldogs are the most hashtagged dog on Instagram, often featured in mass media, and are often owned by celebrities like Martha Stewart, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Madonna.
French bulldogs are categorized as “non-sporting” according to the AKC, meaning they fall into a group of breeds with diverse backgrounds and physical attributes, but whose members are generally good watchdogs and house dogs. French bulldogs typically have a playful, alert disposition and don’t require a lot of exercise, making them a desirable breed. Frenchies are small dogs, ranging from 11-13 inches in height and usually under 28 pounds in weight. Their trademark feature is the breed’s erect bat ears, different from their ancestors’ rose ears. Bat ears are proportionately large, upright ears that lean to make a v-shaped cavity between them. Rose ears resemble rose petals and are folded back to reveal part of their inside.
First bred in England during the mid-1800s with the intent of creating a toy-size bulldog, many of the new breed’s owners relocated to France during the Industrial Revolution, spreading the dogs’ popularity with them. French bulldogs became a symbol of the elite Parisian lifestyle, becoming sought after across Europe and America.
With the popularity boom of Frenchies, the number of breeders has inevitably increased to meet demands. This has made it harder to regulate breeding, and irresponsible breeders are only contributing to the dogs’ health issues. In particular, the practice of inbreeding, or the breeding of closely related dogs, has limited French bulldogs’ genetic diversity. This inhibits their ability to eliminate health problems, but the practice is continued to meet the desire for purebred dogs.
Their bodies are marked with distinctive wrinkles and folds, areas that require frequent cleaning to prevent infections like skin fold dermatitis. The same is true of their floppy, breed standard bat ears. French bulldogs have flattened faces similar to their bulldog cousins, causing them to have a shortened airway that increases the likelihood of breathing and respiratory issues. They were bred to have this short muzzle for cosmetic purposes, also known as a brachycephalic breed. This is especially dangerous in warmer climates, where Frenchies can be subjected to heat stroke as a result of their inability to efficiently cool off through the process of panting.
A 2016 UK study found that nearly half of French bulldogs experience significant breathing problems, and over two-thirds (66%) had excessively tight nostrils, known as stenotic nares. These bulldogs often require surgical corrections to prevent them from overheating and ease their breathing. These surgeries include opening the dogs’ nostrils and removing part of their soft palate, part of the roof of the mouth, to shorten it.
High rates of breeding have also amplified some of the French bulldogs’ other characteristics, such as their squat legs, prominent underbite, and stocky body. Their broad chests, short bodies, and large heads mean that most puppies have to be delivered by Cesarean section (C-section). Despite the extra cost of C-section procedures, breeders justify this because of the high monetary gains they can receive from puppy sales, as each can sell for three to six thousand dollars. Bone malformations have also been observed in the neck and back of some French bulldogs. This can cause spine deformations and nerve pain later in the dogs’ life.
French bulldogs haven’t always been this prone to health problems, however. In comparison to earlier members of the breed, modern Frenchies have shorter snouts, likely caused by cosmetic desires and breed standards.
Several solutions have been proposed to combat these health issues French bulldogs face, in addition to their general overbreeding. One such method is the requirement of DNA testing when breeding to help improve the dogs’ physical features and lifespan. In fact, the usage of genetic testing has helped to decrease the occurrence of a gene responsible for juvenile hereditary cataracts in French bulldogs from 24% in 2009 to less than 2% by 2017. When breeding, selecting dogs with better attributes can promote the evolution of a healthier species, such as those with wider nostrils for ease of breathing.
The ethics of irresponsible or excessive breeding has also been a point of international debate, leading groups like the Norwegian Society for the Protection of Animals to request judicial opinion on the breeding of both bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles spaniels, whose small skull size leads to heart conditions and head pain. The judge ruled that breeding should only be done to improve the health of these breeds or introduce new genetic material, a decision that is currently being appealed. Similarly, the Australian Veterinary Association has recommended discontinuing the breeding of dogs with short muzzles, spinal problems, and other health issues.
However, the American Kennel Club (AKC) has released a statement establishing their disagreement with such legislation or court interference. The organization rather believes in responsible breeding that prioritizes the health and welfare of the dogs. The breed standard for purebred bulldogs is set by the Bulldog Club of America, which currently specifies a “very large” skull and “very short” muzzle for the breed. They see no reason to change these criteria after 100 years of the same standard, advocating for breeders to use health tests to improve the bulldogs’ health.
As aforementioned, however, scientists are worried that the lack of genetic diversity in bulldogs is a problem that cannot necessarily be solved by responsible breeding because it stems from the origin of French bulldogs themselves- the dogs descended from such a small group of original animals that it’s difficult to fully eliminate health problems. Researchers recommend mixing in genetic material from other breeds to help reduce these issues, as it’s proven to be a successful practice in the past. In the 1970s, a breeder was able to crossbreed Dalmations with pointers, then return to breeding only Dalmations while reducing their previously high risk of getting bladder stones.
Regardless of this historical success, the Bulldog Club of America has made it clear that they do not see a reason to crossbreed and intend on upholding their standards. In contrast, some international organizations and breeders are following new standards for French bulldogs in light of these dangers to their health. The UK Kennel Club stated that the breed’s nostrils should be “visibly open”, have a “well-defined” muzzle, and not have too many wrinkles. In Switzerland, a new breed called Continental bulldogs with elongated bodies has been established to try to alleviate some of the health risks Frenchies face.
In America, these changes have yet to occur as many people still are drawn to French bulldogs’ aesthetic appeal, allowing the prolongation of health problems and overbreeding of the dogs. Purebred Frenchies, those at the greatest risk of complications, are in great demand because of the prestige we associate with purebred or “designer” dogs, using them as a symbol of status. It is undeniable that the breed is facing significant challenges that are only worsening over time. Unless we implement changes to the breed standard or enact stricter regulations on breeding, the future of French bulldogs is still in limbo. This question of ethics and aesthetic preference is not only limited to Frenchies, but something we need to address.