Ah for pugs' sake, let's get this sorted!

I love pugs.

I always have. They are cute, adorable, friendly and fun.

They make a great family pet, what a beautiful little personality they have. The good reputable pug breeders love their dogs and want only the best for them.

But there's a problem with pugs, one that I want to help bring to the attention of the general public and one that I want to get fixed.

What is this problem? Well it's as simple as this:

Pugs cannot breathe normally!

Many are so bad that they need surgery to be able to breathe with ease, with some even requiring a permanent hole in their throat so that they can breathe. And it's not the odd one that's born like this - it's nearly every single one of them.

My experience as a vet - 20 years of it - is that every single pug I have seen needed surgery (more of which further on) so that it could breathe with ease. Every single one. Not all of them had the surgery (some owners didn't believe me, some couldn't afford it) but as a vet who knows what I am talking about on this matter I am telling you now - all of them needed it.

That's just wrong. It has to be wrong that nearly all of a breed have such a problem that they need surgery to live comfortably. To breathe.

The reason for this is that the anatomy of their skull is such that their upper airways are 'squashed' into too small a space.

Have a look at these images of skulls of different breeds.

The skull of the Collie is a good example of what normal and healthy is - a nice long muzzle allowing the dog's airways to form correctly and therefore to be able breath properly, i.e. get air into and out of its lungs with ease.

Compare this to the Pug and French Bulldog.

You'll see that their muzzles are practically gone. (The technical term for the short muzzled/flat faced breeds is 'brachycephalic'.)

The result is that all the soft tissue structures that are meant to be in the muzzle are compressed into too small a space and squashed to a point of blocking the air coming in. Their nostrils are too narrow; their soft palate is too long and thick; the little bones in what there is of their muzzle are too large for the space that's there; their windpipe is narrowed. Often times their tongue is too big as well.

Because of this these lovely little dogs just cannot get enough air into their lungs without having to make extra efforts to pull this air through narrowed, partially obstructed and convoluted airways. It's like breathing through straws.

The technical term for this condition is Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS).

(A little science: Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) is a well-known combination of several upper airway abnormalities. These abnormalities may be defined as primary (stenotic nares, elongated and thick soft palate, excessive nasopharyngeal turbinates, and hypoplastic trachea) or secondary (mainly laryngeal collapse). Redundant and hypertrophied pharyngeal folds, macroglossia, laryngeal edema, enlarged tonsils, and bronchial collapse may also be present.)

So when these little dogs with BOAS breathe they sound like the dog in the video below. Click play and have a listen.

This is a completely abnormal way for a dog to sound when it breathes. It is a sign that they are struggling to get air into their lungs. It's no different than if you placed a hand over their mouth and nostrils and partially suffocated them.

Most pugs are like this.

Here's the problem: Because most pugs sound like this therefore some will say that this is 'normal' for this breed. Those most likely to say this is 'normal' are unfortunately those who own and breed these breeds. They love their dogs so can't admit there is a serious problem.

That is wrong, it is a perverse logic. It would be like saying because 90% people in a town are obese then it's normal to be obese, or because 90% of my 7 year old child's friends are obese then my morbidly obese child is fine.

Head in sand stuff.

The truth is that many pugs sound like this because so many of them are abnormally formed. They have a hereditary pathological medical condition (BOAS) that causes them to be born with obstructed airways and it is the forced passage of air through these abnormal and obstructed airways that causes the sounds they make. If their airways were normal - that is to say 'normal for a dog' - then they would not sound like this.

Dogs with normally constructed and healthy airways do not sound like this. Normal dogs - or indeed any animal - do not struggle for breath just walking around or sitting doing nothing.

Now this didn't happen by accident - it happened by design. Of course no one set out to design a breed that could not breathe, but what we - humans - did do was make a decision that we like the pugs with flatter faces and over the generations they were bred to look like that.

Have a look at this dog below - this was what pugs looked like in the early 19th century. Much longer muzzles and presumably, therefore, more able to breathe with ease.

The Modern Pug: An Anatomical Abomination?

However, as said, somewhere along the line humans decided that we would prefer them to have flatter faces (and also kinked, curly tails, more of which later). We liked the look of that. It became a kind of fashion.

People looking to buy them wanted the flatter face ones and would pay more for them. Only those with that flat face (and curly tails) would win shows. The combined result of this what that breeders - the vast majority of who were and are good, decent people who love their dogs dearly - bred the flattest face males with the flattest face females and produced litters of flatter faced little pups. They fulfilled public demand, they fulfilled the requirements of the kennel clubs and breed societies and their judges at the shows as only the flat faced ones with the curly tail would win the 'best in show'.

And on it went, the little dogs getting flatter faces as each generation went by until we ended up in today's situation, below.

Yes they were cute and yes they were wonderful little personalities and great little dogs. But the flatter the face the worse the breathing - so by starting out to 'design' a dog that looked a particular way we ended up, inadvertently, designing a dog that cannot breathe in a way dogs should be able to breathe. What a mess we made! As a vet this to me is an abomination.

Now this isn't the only breed that we made a mess of. There are others with inbuilt genetic problems that we as humans 'made' that cause health and welfare issues, but there aren't many breeds where such a high proportion are destined to suffer from birth in the way these extreme brachycephalic breeds are. Bulldogs are just as bad.

The poor pug, struggling for breath, my heart breaks

When I see a new little pug present to me, perhaps for its puppy vaccinations, and who I can see has this problem - which is just about all pugs I have ever seen - I have two separate reactions.

The dog lover in me - well my heart breaks. This poor little pup is destined for a life of struggle and I know that the lovely owners will be shocked and upset when I tell them what the problem is. They will have had no idea. They came in all happy for their puppy's shots, they are going to go out in a degree of shock. Or denial.

The vet in me - well, eventhough I want to change it so that in future these little pugs will be born able to breathe, I still have to do what's right for this little one in front of me so I advise that they go into the University Veterinary Hospital in UCD to be assessed for corrective surgery.

I have yet to have one pug referred back to me from the University Veterinary Hospital saying that it did not need surgery to help it breathe

Here's some plain facts:

  • I have advised referral to UCD for every pug (bar one*) I have seen since I took over Blacklion Pet Hospital Greystones in 2003.

  • Every pug whose owner has taken up may advice and gone in to UCD has been advised by the specialists to have the surgery done.

  • Every pug that has had the surgery has a vastly improved quality of life.

* The one I didn't send in to UCD for surgery, whose breathing was normal. I was over the moon and the owners were thrilled. But I found out a few months later he actually wasn't a pure-bred pug at all. He was a Pug-Jack Russell Cross (A 'Jug'). Here what he looked liked below. As well as healthy looking with a long muzzle and a normal tail, he's a very handsome little fella I think. But look again - does he look familiar? Have a look at him and then go back up and look at the 1800's pug!

Is this a Jug or is it just the same as an 1800's pug?

Is it right to do the surgery when it's needed? Yes, it is.

Have a look here at this little fella before and after surgery, and see that this dog's quality of life is revolutionised.

Yes, this dogs should have been operated on, it would be cruel not to help it. But this dog should never have been born like that. Whilst it is right that the surgery is done when needed, it is absolutely wrong that just about every pug needs it.

That situation is just plain wrong. An abomination.

Tech corner: The surgeries explained....

There are a few different surgical procedures that can be performed depending on the severity of the dogs. The videos below show some of the surgeries - widening of the nostrils and trimming of the soft palate.

This last one below is from a clinic in Spain and is about 9 minutes long. You'll see the dog before the surgery (struggling to breathe), the surgical procedures he had to go through, and then the vastly improved situation after the surgery.

If these don't work then a last ditch surgery is to essentially cut a permanent hole into the windpipe of the poor dog (a permanent tracheostomy). This guy below will have to breathe through this for life and whilst it did save his life it can cause all sorts of other medical problems. As well as not being able to bark. Ever again.

As I have already said: What a mess we have made!

Is this acceptable that nearly all of a breed needs surgery to help it breathe? Absolutely not.

Who in their right mind can argue against an idea that all dogs should be able to breathe easily?

Whilst no-one could argue against the last point unfortunately there are a lot of people worldwide, including some breeders and some in the breed societies and kennel clubs, who don't accept these dogs have a problem.

That - the denial - is actually is the nub of the problem we face.