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Do you Believe in Dog? (2018). Powered by Blogger.

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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


7 June 2014

What the pug is going on?

Hi Julie,

thanks for that awesome list of canine-related citizen science projects that anyone can sink their teeth into. 

I have a question for you: 

What do you see when a pug comes into your field of vision?

I'm asking you because (at the risk of inciting wrath of many) - honestly? I'm really bamboozled by some pedigree breeds and their popularity with so many people. 

How I feel
I'm not hating on pugs or pedigree dogs, and I don't mean any offence to people who hold their love of pugs close to their hearts. I really don't. I appreciate some people are very passionate about breeding certain kinds of dogs. I don't mean them disrespect. I think I just see dogs differently to them.

Pugs do make an excellent example to lay on the table for discussion when we consider inherited health and welfare issues in dog breeds. We could just as easily choose to look at any other breed where physical characteristics have been strongly selected for, like the Dalmatian, Great Dane, British Bulldog, Basset Hound, Dachshund, German Shepherd, Shar Pei, Pekingese, Neapolitan Mastiff... I could go on... but let's take the Pug as a case study today.

So tell me - what do you see?

I see a companion dog who can't really fit into the body we've given it. 

And by 'the body we've given it', I mean that through successive generations of human-dictated breeding that selects for an increasingly shortened muzzle (flat face), round head, big eyes, curly tail and rolls of skin, we've changed the face and body of pugs from this...

Pug circa 1890 (source) this. I'll grant you this is an extreme example, but by golly, the fact that we've produced a dog lacking a defined muzzle like this makes me worry for the health and welfare of the dog. This dog really has no discernible nose or muzzle: 

Dogs should not have a concave face (source)
Does it matter? Well, if you DON'T want a dog that can breathe effectively, maybe not. 

The (in)ability to breathe
Although of course, it kind of makes for a sucky life for the dog. Not being able to breathe or moderate their temperature easily. I don't think many people in chronic respiratory distress report it feeling great. I don't think it's unreasonable to extrapolate that it causes dogs similar discomfort. The compromised breathing of these dogs isn't (as the tags on YouTube might lead some to believe) funny, nor cute, it's a red flag that says 'animal welfare problem'.

Pugs don't snore to be 'cute':

They snore because their airways are compromised.

Sometimes to the point that they can't even sleep without sitting up or having their head elevated in some other way (other examples - just search 'pug snoring' on YouTube - are by resting their head while sitting on the side of a bed/arm rest, etc.):

What stops pugs being able to breathe properly? Their nostrils - or nares - are really closed up (known as 'stenotic nares') compared to other breeds with a more typical muzzle shape.

Pug nostrils (Flickr/e_haya)
Nostrils of another small companion breed

You've given a great outline of stenotic nares and how surgery can be required to open the nostrils sufficiently, to allow adequate air flow, over on your Dog Spies blog.

To better understand brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome, Let's get some perspective on the how selective breeding has altered skull shape in dogs, especially the brachycephalic (extremely short-nosed) breeds, like pugs: 

Domestic dog skulls (source)

Canid skulls (source)

Now, I understand many people don't see the point of directly comparing a pug and a wolf, they're not the same, I get it. But Julie, you and I both know that pugs are trying to fit almost all the same equipment in terms of brain and eyes and tongue and sensory and breathing bits and pieces inside and around that skull as any domestic dog breed. And it's just not fitting.

Ay ay ay - the eyes (Flickr/audreyjm529)

Pugs are also prone to eye problems because their eyes are usually more prominent (sticking out more) from their reduced skull.  I mean, not only do their eyes protrude to the point that they're highly likely to get grazes and ulcers (to the surface of their eye). Pugs eyes are also prone to not staying in the eye socket. If anyone out there really wants to see, just Google Image 'pug prolapsed eye'. 

Without a muzzle
Of course, when the lower jaw and throat are so short, it can turn basic things like eating and drinking a real challenge. 

Dogs are incredibly adaptable, though - look at how Shrek has modified his behaviour to be able to drink:

Pugs muzzles have vanished faster than their dentition has been able to adapt, so their mouths are often in need of veterinary attention, or modification:
Where do teeth go in this pug's mouth? (source)
From the head to the tail
The double-curled 'screw' tail is, predictably, linked to spinal problems such as hemivertebrae, where malformed vertebrae can result in instability or deformity, putting pressure on the spinal column, causing pain, affecting mobility and sometimes defecation control as well.

Hemivertebrae x-ray
And there's more...
The excessive skin folds around their face causes skin health issues, often requiring daily cleaning. Brachycephalic dogs have brains shown to be rotated differently to other skull types... I could go on. This is not an exhaustive list of the welfare related health issues seen in pugs Julie, but I think what we've covered here is more than enough to ask people to question what is cute and what is funny and what is acceptable to select for when choosing how our companion dogs should look. 

How can people see cute?
I know that pugs have a lot of those things humans perceive as cute. But is it worth it? 
Not for me. I think we should be helping pugs regain their muzzles, make some room for their bodies to fit in again. Recently, I heard from Jemima Harrison of Pedigree Dogs Exposed, that some breeders in Germany are trying. Look at one of their dogs:

What do you think Julie - is it more athletic? Does it have more muzzle? I think it's moving in the right direction. I bet it's an awesome companion animal. 

And isn't that what these guys are supposed to be all about? 

Don't you think we should focus on having healthy, functional dogs in our lives - and if their function is to be our companions - who gives a pug about the angle of their face? So long as they can breathe, eat, drink, exercise and share our lives for a really long time?

I know ALL dogs are likely to have some health problems. Pure breed or cross breed. The difference with pugs is that these physical traits that we know are detrimental to the dogs' wellbeing are being DELIBERATELY selected for, generation after generation.

In a completely different context, someone in Australia recently said "The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept" - I know a lot of breed enthusiasts have a reputation for being defensive. They reportedly assign blame for their breed's inherited disorders away from their own activities. But ignoring these problems - walking past them - isn't helping. It's accepting them. 

I think the scientific evidence against extreme morphology - like that we see in the pug - is overwhelming. We need to do better. We have excellent monitoring tools like VetCompass (UK & Australia) and LIDA (Australia) available to help us track and better understand the health of our dogs. Wouldn't it be great to see positive trends emerging in future scientific papers about pedigree dog health and welfare?

Science has changed the way I see pugs. I don't see cute or funny, I see a dog struggling to get by because of its form. I know that I feel differently to some people about dog breeds. I know I pay more attention to the health, wellbeing and behaviour of dogs, than how they look. 

I guess I just wanted to say to you, Julie - I think it's time to give pugs - and other breeds - a better quality of life. People need to stop selecting for, and exaggerating, features that make dogs' lives less than optimal. I'd like people to have fresh eyes next time they see a pug. Look past the funny and cute and consider the experience of the dog inside.

Let's face it - unlike pug tongues - in that regard, we've got plenty of room to move.

See you when I step off the plane later this week and I promise to have my ranty-pants off by then!


Further reading:

McGreevy P. & Nicholas F. (1999). Some Practical Solutions to Welfare Problems in Dog Breeding, Animal Welfare, 8 (4) 329-341.

Collins L.M., Asher L., Summers J. & McGreevy P. (2011). Getting priorities straight: risk assessment and decision-making in the improvement of inherited disorders in pedigree dogs., Veterinary journal (London, England : 1997), PMID:

Asher L., Diesel G., Summers J.F., McGreevy P.D. & Collins L.M. Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 1: disorders related to breed standards., Veterinary journal (London, England : 1997), PMID:

Summers J.F., Diesel G., Asher L., McGreevy P.D. & Collins L.M. (2010). Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 2: Disorders that are not related to breed standards., The Veterinary Journal , 183 (1) 39-45. PMID: 

McGreevy P. (2007). Breeding for quality of life., Animal Welfare, 16 (Supplement 1) 125-128. 

Roberts T., McGreevy P. & Valenzuela M. (2010). Human induced rotation and reorganization of the brain of domestic dogs., PloS one, PMID:

King, T., Marston, L.C. & Bennett, P.C. (2012). Breeding dogs for beauty and behaviour: Why scientists need to do more to develop valid and reliable behaviour assessments for dogs kept as companions,Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 137 (1-2) 12. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.11.016

White, D. (2013). Screening for hemivertebra in pugs. Veterinary Record173(1), 24-24.

Pedigree Dogs Exposed. Documentary. BBC. Available for purchase here.

Pedigree Dogs Exposed: Three Years On. Documentary. BBC. Available for purchase here.

Top photo attribution: Flickr/jonclegg

© Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog? 2014

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  1. Dogs are social creatures that like to be with their families, which is why it is important for your dog to spend time indoors with you. While a fenced yard and dog house are both good ideas for your pet, they cannot replace the companionship of people. Give your dog a pleasant outdoor space, but don’t leave him out there alone for long periods of time.

  2. Really informative post. Thanks a lot.


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