The Trouble with Bulldogs

English Bulldogs may suffer from more health problems, and more severe health problems, than any other breed. That’s no accident – it’s the result of the way they’re bred.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #181

The Trouble with Bulldogs

Today, a little Dog Trainer mind game. Take a minute to think about your ideal pet dog, and picture her. Him. Or her. Whatever. What does she look like? What kind of personality does he have? And now let’s say that I, The Dog Trainer, have superpowers, which I’m using to develop pet dogs. Here’s what I come up with.

The dogs I offer you:
  • have nostrils and a windpipe so narrow that they can’t draw in enough air and also can’t cool themselves by panting, so they drop with heatstroke in droves during hot weather.

  • have jaws too short for their teeth, which grow in crooked and prone to decay.

  • have wrinkled facial skin that’s often sore and is easily infected by yeast and bacteria.

  • have unusually short, bowed legs and malformed joints.

  • can’t give birth normally; in fact, 80% to 95% of births are by cesarean section.

  • have a higher incidence than any other breed of obstructed blood flow from the heart to the lungs, causing chest pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

Wait, there’s more: In many of these dogs, their eyelashes curl under the lid and scrape against the dog’s corneas. A much-higher-than-average number of my special pets have developmental abnormalities of the eye; cleft lip; and hydrocephalus. As a bonus, many of them have tails so tightly corkscrewed that feces collects under them. Even with daily cleaning, some get painful sores that won’t heal unless the dog’s tail is amputated.

Bulldogs’ catastrophic ill health – it’s no mystery, but the direct result of breed standards and breeding practices.

I sound like I’ve been playing Dr. Frankenstein, right? But the dogs I just invented exist in real life. They have flat faces and snorting breath. They’re built like barrels on legs. Most people think they’re cute, and according to the AKC they were the sixth most popular breed in America in 2011. They’re English Bulldogs.

The Problem With English Bulldogs

Breed-related websites often describe Bulldogs’ many problems as if they appeared out of nowhere and just have to be accepted and managed. Bulldogs’ ill health – it’s a mystery! The Bulldog Club of America would like to solve it: “We support health research to find and remedy the underlying causes of diseases found in the breed.” Savor that line: It has to be one of the richer displays of hypocrisy to be found anywhere on this planet. “The underlying causes of diseases found in the breed” are breeding practices. The breed standard is the Bulldog’s problem, all the way down the line. Here’s the laundry list:


Bulldogs can’t breathe properly because the breed standard calls for an “extremely short face” and for the tip of the nose to be “set back deeply between the eyes.” That makes for compressed, narrow nostrils (and – surprise! – lots more respiratory problems as well).

Seventy-two percent of Bulldogs have hip dysplasia (malformation), more than any other breed tracked by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, because the breed standard calls for “a broad, low, short-legged appearance.” Why all those yeast and bacterial infections in the skin? Could it be because the breed standard calls for Bulldogs’ heads and faces to “be covered with heavy wrinkles” that – yes! – provide a rich habitat for yeast and bacteria? Why all those cesarean sections? The breed standard insists that “The skull should be very large, and in circumference, in front of the ears, should measure at least the height of the dog at the shoulders.”  So thanks to the giant-head requirement, by the end of pregnancy a Bulldog fetus’s head is too big to fit through the opening in the mother’s pelvis.

Long story short, the breed standard for Bulldogs expressly requires a grossly distorted physical form. There is no mystery about why Bulldogs are physical wrecks. Human beings engineered them that way.

Why Are Bulldogs So Popular?

It’s a good bet that Bulldogs are so popular because their faces and bodies press our “baby” buttons. Evolution is all about reproductive success. Human reproductive success depends on taking care of babies; and babies have … big heads, big eyes, stubby noses, rounded bodies, and short limbs, just like Bulldogs. That general pattern is all you need to produce the “Aww, cute!” effect. As the ethologist Sonja Yoerg notes in her 2001 book Clever as a Fox, “Just as the stickleback [fish] attacks when it sees anything fishy with a red belly, we are irresistibly charmed by anything that resembles a baby … The push-button appeal of neotenized animals is reflected in our choices of pets.”

Between the cuteness effect and the breed clubs’ “Gosh, how did that happen?” attitude, Bulldog health problems are normalized: “It’s just his breed.” In the spring of 2012, researchers at the Royal Veterinary College published a study of the guardians of 31 dogs diagnosed with brachycephalic airway syndrome. These people knew their dogs snored (sometimes while awake!), got tired on short walks, choked and gagged, and overheated easily – they reported those symptoms to the vets. But more than half of them perceived their dogs as normal. As one wrote, “No to breathing problem – other than being a Bulldog.”

The Hard Truth

Bulldogs are not normal or healthy. Many, many other breeds, from Doberman Pinschers to Cavalier King Charles Spaniels to German Shepherds – and on and on – also come with a string of heritable health problems that hurt them and shorten their lives. But probably no breed is worse off than the Bulldog. Next time that flat face, those big eyes, and that snorting breath make you go all gooey inside, check yourself and let your forebrain exercise a veto over the reflexive feeling that those dysfunctional, painful bodies are cute. If you’ve already got a Bulldog, please take this as your wake-up call. Take good care of your dog as long as he lives – and when he’s gone and you’re ready for a new companion, don’t fall for the breeder bull. It’s time to stop producing Bulldogs and time to stop buying them. In this New Year, it’s way past time for all of us who love dogs to turn our backs on an aesthetic built on cruelty.

That’s it for this week. You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading.

English Bulldog image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).