Why are dog breeds with inherited genetic problems so popular?

Sandøe, P., Kondrup, S. V., Bennett, P. C., Forkman, B., Meyer, I., Proschowsky, H. F.,& Lund, T. B. (2017). Why do people buy dogs with potential welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inherited disease? A representative study of Danish owners of four small dog breeds. PloS one, 12(2), e0172091.

This study, conducted between 2009 and 2014 in Denmark, considers the reasons why people still choose to purchase pedigree dogs with a high level of inherited health issues. Owners of specific dogs prone to inherited diseases were asked why they chose their dog and about the level of research that they carried out before buying the dog. They were also asked about their dog’s health and behavior; the strength of their bond with the dog; and whether they would choose the same breed again after experiencing their health problems.

There is increasing concern for the welfare of pedigree dogs with health problems. For example, the French Bulldog is considered a brachycephalic breed, characterised by a flattened facial profile which causes breathing problems and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are prone to heart and brain problems. Awareness of these issues is rising and there is plenty of information available, but this is not having an impact on reducing the demand. Theories for why people still choose these breeds include the owners being unaware of these problems prior to purchase or possibly they are more concerned with factors such as convenience, cuteness or fashion. It is also thought that they don't perceive the issues as problems, but as 'normal' for that breed. Some people buy dogs with similarities to themselves in relation to size, attractiveness and personality. Childlike facial features (large eyes, large forehead etc) are also thought to attract people to certain breeds.

Dog owners of the four different breeds selected from the Danish dog registry participated in a survey to assess their attitudes and knowledge of breed specific health problems. Two of these breeds have extreme body conformation (Chihuahua and French Bulldog), Cavalier King Charles Spaniels has inherited health problems not linked to body shape, and Cairn Terriers were chosen to represent a breed in the same size range but without extreme conformation, but with the same level of disease load.

Reasons for purchase varied between breeds

The study found that Chihuahua owners did the least planning and research before buying their pets. The reasons behind choosing the breeds also differed between the owners. French Bulldog and Chihuahua owners did not consider health problems, with Chihuahua owners being the most motivated by the ease of obtaining the dog and French Bulldog owners being more concerned with personality and appearance. The owners of Cairn Terriers were found to be the most concerned with the health of their pets. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel owners did consider health, but were also concerned about personality and appearance. Out of the four breeds, French Bulldogs had the most health and behavioural problems, with Cairn Terriers having the least. It was also shown that experience of health and behaviour problems did not reduce the owners’ desire to get the same breed again, except in the case of French Bulldogs. Strength of attachment seemed to be linked to appearance, with those who favoured physical characteristics and 'cuteness' having stronger bonds with their dogs. Chihuahua owners were most attached, with Cairn Terrier owners (who were less interested in appearance) being the least. Interestingly, owners of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Chihuahuas who had problems had stronger bonds, perhaps because of their 'vulnerability' increases care-giving. Behavioural problems and social fear may be linked to a stronger bond because these dogs become more attached to their owners. Also over-attachment between dogs and owners reinforces fearful behaviour.

This study demonstrates that the reasons for obtaining breeds differs between them and that the level of attachment also varies. Availability of information about these breed related problems has not deterred people from still choosing them. Better ways to discourage the breeding of these dogs and to direct people to obtain dogs without these problems need to be found.

World Animal Protection’s view

This study demonstrates some of the motivations behind acquiring pedigree dogs with major health and behavioural problems. Even awareness or experience of these problems often doesn't discourage people from buying them. A different method needs to be found to highlight the suffering of these dogs and to motivate people to choose dogs that are not prone to welfare problems.