*This was originally submitted as an academic dissertation for Goldsmiths, University of London – average read time, 36 minutes
Doug has achieved a lot more than your average six year-old.
He’s a published author, global style icon and humanitarian, with over 3.2 million fans and Instagram followers. He hangs out with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Ryan Seacrest and Justin Bieber to name a few, and has had countless sponsorship deals with huge brands, making himself a respectable sum of circa $450,000 per year.
Oh, and he’s a Pug.
But Doug isn’t alone. He’s part of fast growing internet culture, where posting regular content of your furry friend on fast-growing social media platforms such as Instagram could earn you a lot of followers- and more so, a lot of money.
Increasingly, more unusual-looking dogs such as Pugs and Bulldogs have become somewhat of an internet sensation, with viral videos and celebrity owners becoming part of everyday life and an extreme demand for the regular consumer to get a taste of the high life. French bulldogs in particular have seen a whopping 3000% rise in Kennel Club registrations over the past ten years alone, which is set to see them overtake Labradors as the UK’s most popular dog in over 30 years.
What’s more, Kennel Club registrations only account for around 30 percent of the total population of UK dogs, so there are growing concerns that there are far more of these dogs in reality than accounted for- including dogs that have been brought in illegally from Europe.
According to the EU Pet Travel Regulation, puppies must be vaccinated and 12 weeks old with a 21-day cooling-off period to travel overseas, so while they have free movement much like humans, they’ll need to be around 15 weeks old in total to travel.
Unfortunately, due to this rising demand for certain more fashionable breeds, puppies overseas are being farmed cheaper, more intensely and smuggled younger than ever before, causing trauma, injury, and suffering before they’ve even arrived to their new owners.
With social media and celebrity culture being the hotbed for these animals, breeders are also setting up camp online, to entice new customers, launch influencer campaigns (offering discounts on puppies in return for content), and create an army of fans unbeknownst to the dark side of the cruel system being fuelled. While they may claim to be UK-based, it’s often found that these so-called puppy pimps are merely doing the work for overseas puppy farmers in countries such as Russia and Lithuania, taking a cut of the money for every puppy sold.
But popularity has its problems. Pugs, French bulldogs, Boxers, and Chihuahuas to name a few, are all known for suffering serious health complications that particularly affect breathing, as they are part of a group of short-snouted dogs known as brachycephalic breeds. The high demand for these dogs has led to an epidemic of irresponsible breeding, only worsening their existing diseases, and hiking vet bills by thousands of pounds for their new owners, as well as heartbreak when the worst happens out of their hands.
It’s said that humans are drawn to these breeds because their large eyes and brachycephaly (flat, wrinkly faces) resemble the faces of our own infants, and American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould has previously said this is why Disney cartoonists drew characters the way they did. For example, Mickey and Minnie Mouse would both be considered ‘cute’ due to their accentuated features- although in reality, neither of them resemble real mice.
This all links to the very malleable medium of dog DNA. The genetic structure of domesticated dogs is so flexible, because in all of the 15 to 30 thousand years fossil records show dogs have been around, humans have been picking and choosing which individuals to breed together to get their desired outcome. Even as near as 130 years ago, up to 80% of breeds we own today didn’t exist – and particularly in these dogs, there are only three recognised breed-standard colours (fawn, brindle, and pied), which has been extended over the past twenty years or so to around ten different variations, including the highly desirable blue and merle shades.
Because we know what attracts us to these dogs, breeders are actually very highly skilled sculptors that are able to breed litters to look a certain way. This includes puppies being smaller, their ears and eyes being bigger, and their faces flatter- the opposite of how they looked 200 years ago.
A Whole lot of History
Imagine that small, wrinkly lap dog that spends 90% of it’s time asleep, hunting lions. You can’t. But ancient Chinese legends say that Pugs were originally bred to kill ferocious jungle cats.
However, there isn’t much factual evidence to back this up, and was actually initiated by travellers, who believed Pugs resembled Chinese guardian lion statues. Pugs, along with other similar breeds such as ChowChows and Pekingese, were then named by these travellers as “Foo Dogs” or “Lion Dogs”.
But paintings prove that Pugs were a huge part of art history, featuring in many famous artworks during the 1700s. In particular, they were painted a lot by artist, William Hogarth, who showed a totally different Pug from the one we know today. In these works, Hogarth paints a dog with long legs, a straight tail, and a lengthy muzzle- almost unrecognisable, and bearing the resemblance of a hound.
Before the 19th Century, there was no real answer to “What is a Pug?”. Paintings show us so many different dogs all under the name of ‘Pugs’ that all coexisted, way before they started being modified to standards that resemble the Pug we know today.
Until the 1800s, French bulldogs didn’t exist. Despite their name, they actually originated from Nottingham- so definitely wouldn’t have that enchanting, French, nouveau riche accent you would imagine – if they could talk, obviously.
They were bred to be smaller versions of British bulldogs, and got their names after many Nottingham lace workers emigrated to France for better opportunities, and took their dogs with them, and they played a huge part in both world wars, acting as trench workers, delivering supplies to soldiers.
Emeritus Professor, Michael Worboy, from Manchester University, has previously conducted a £500,000 study into the controversial role humans have played in altering the way dogs look through science and medicine.
“How Pugs and Bulldogs look has changed mostly as a result of morphology and Victorian Britain, when canines were first manufactured into specific, standardised conformation types.” he says.
“It’s because fanciers have decided how they want these dogs to look. The Kennel Club are reluctant to do anything about health and other consequences because the people who set breed standards and judge the shows will leave the jurisdiction of The Kennel Club.
“Problems are long standing- in the 1930s Hollywood folk and the Queen took Sealyham terriers, and now they’re on The Kennel Club’s threatened list.”
As so many new breeds were discovered after the American civil war, the popularity of Pugs quickly died down, and didn’t start to rise again until the late 2000’s, when the boom in social media saw pages dedicated to animals and humans began profiting from their pets.
The New Generation
Today we see something very different. The Pug has become a wrinkly, bulging-eyed, curly-tailed creature- popular for being so ugly that it’s almost cute.
If you’re having a bad day- you only have to go onto your Facebook feed, and within seconds you’ll be greeted by viral videos of French Bulldogs on skateboards, or litters of adorable Pug puppies surprising children as their birthday gift.
Even huge corporate newspapers such as The Daily Mail, the least likely of dog fans, have jumped on the bandwagon, putting news aside, and posting user generated clips, garnering over 15 million views per video.
James Parker, Social Media Expert and Content Creator, says videos of dogs are so successful because engagement is the key to getting your video on people’s home pages- and doesn’t everybody tag their friends in these posts?
“Facebook changed their algorithm to prioritise videos over everything else on your feed” he says.
“What do a lot of people have access to? Dogs. Which animals are always cute or hilarious? Dogs. So when the video revolution came, everyone grabbed their phone and used their dogs to produce the content everyone is addicted to.”
The trend originally stemmed from celebrity owners such as Reese Witherspoon, Carrie Fisher and Hugh Jackman, all taking something that in reality, would be perceived as quite ugly- and making it fashionable.
Pugs and French Bulldogs also come with a hefty price tag ranging from £1,000-£10,000, and would likely have been seen as a status symbol for wealthier people owning such an exclusive dog, when the average price of most dogs is around £500.
No two Frenchies look the same- they come in a variety of colours and markings, and it’s the unique appeal that makes owners fall in love with them.
Obviously the exclusivity of having the same dog as your favourite celebrities makes them Instagram-worthy in anyone’s eyes, and as they’ve become more popular, people have learnt more about them and just how many laughs they bring.
Over the past few years it’s almost become the norm to set up an Instagram account for your new pooch, with Instagram usernames containing the word “bulldog” rising 60% over the past 2 years, and even accumulating a couple of thousand followers can bring in sponsorship deals from pet brands. It’s so easy to snap photos from the comfort of your home that building online personalities for your pets is now accessible to everyone, and Instagram has seen an average of 17 million posts every month with the term ‘dog’ since 2016.
Dog fanatic, Sian Marshall, set up an Instagram account for her Pug, Bowser, alongside being a student, which has brought in well-needed extra income through working with pet food and toy brands, promoting them on her dogs account.
“I started documenting Bowser because he’s just so funny, and putting it online was a way that I could keep it forever and other people could enjoy it too.” she says.
“I had no idea it would take off the way it did and it all happened so quickly.
“Now we have companies sending him leads and collars and toys…I know Bowser loves it”
Other particularly successful pets include Manny, a six year-old French bulldog from Chicago. Manny’s career began when his owners, Amber Chavez and Jon Huang, posted a video of him making a bed out of their bathroom sink. The video went viral, earning him a number of celebrity followers and a place on Steve Harvey’s talk show.
Since then, the pampered pup’s career has gone nowhere but up, with the average price tag of a sponsored Instagram post by Manny being $17,000. But…brands aren’t put off by this, because apparently there’s nothing cuter than a French bulldog posed next to a bottle of Turtle Wax.
It probably helps that pet spending in the UK has more than doubled to £4.9million a year since 2006. Since then, brands have used this to their advantage, incorporating fashionable dogs into their campaigns.
In 2016 John Lewis created one of the most memorable Christmas adverts of the decade, featuring ‘Buster the Boxer’ jumping on a trampoline. Boxers too, are brachycephalic dogs, so a lot of dog owners found it particularly interesting that the use of a dog with known breathing problems on a trampoline caused no backlash whatsoever, in comparison to pugs and bulldogs, who often get the opposite reaction when it comes to advertisers using them in branding.
But, in true Frenchie owner style, dog-mums of the internet have hit back out, claiming that it’s nonsense and that every dog breed has its set backs – it’s just a matter of choosing which issue you can afford to take on.
“People are only outraged about Frenchies because they’re more aware of their problems than other breeds” argues French Bulldog owner, Pagan Fleming.
“When dogs develop health problems it’s usually due to the way the owner has looked after it, and I don’t think advertisers are stupid enough to put a sick dog on TV for millions of people to see.”
HSBC released an advert earlier this year involving a number of brachycephalic dogs including a Chihuahua and a French bulldog. However, they say when coming up with the idea, they took into account what the potential response could be.
A spokesperson for HSBC said: “We undertook the necessary measures to ensure animal welfare during the production, with a vet attending the shoot. All the dogs featured in the commercial were healthy, and we made sure that we didn’t feature any dogs that were impaired versions of the brachycephalic breeds.
“Since the launch of the campaign, we have become aware of the #BreedToBreathe campaign and the BVA’s recommendations against featuring brachycephalic breeds in advertising. We understand and fully support this intention and for future campaigns will look to BVA for guidance on the responsible use of all animals in advertising.”
One Click Away
There are also concerns that teenagers are being easily influenced into buying fashionable breeds of dog from seeing them frequently in the media, without doing the proper research.
Teenagers spend an average of nine hours per day on social media, so there’s no argument that being glued to screens, along with their vulnerability, influences their decision making.
Abbie White, 17, recently got a Pug after seeing her favourite YouTube stars creating videos featuring their pets: “I’ve always loved the dogs of Zoella and Danielle Mansutti.
“Obviously there was an element of it making me closer to being like them, and the fact Pugs don’t need much exercise and sleep a lot fit into our family routine.
She added; “I bought my dog online. But we went to the breeders house and did proper background checks, as I had heard about people breeding them to make them look designer.
“There were six puppies and I made sure I chose the one I thought looked healthiest. I don’t see a problem with wanting something because someone else has it.”
The ease of buying a dog online has proven to be a contributing factor to the lack of thought that now goes into buying a dog. Bulldogs and Pugs are expensive to buy, plus a lifetime of medical bills to pay for, proving difficult for people who buy them unknowingly. This has seen a huge rise in the number of Pugs and Bulldogs left abandoned- which has had a detrimental effect on animal rescue charities such as the RSPCA.
The average cost of the RSPCA rescuing a dog to the day it is rehomed is £632, not including any medical treatment it may need before it goes to it’s new home.
Amy Ockelford, from the RSPCA, says that French bulldogs and Pugs are easier to rehome than other dogs because of how popular they are- however, many people are put off when they realise the level of medical attention they need: “We have to be very upfront with people when rehoming about potential underlying medical problems, and this makes the process trickier.
“Our adoption fee is around £170 so people do get over the medical factor, because they’re saving thousands of pounds than if they were going out and buying a Pug puppy from a breeder.”
She says the process of buying a dog has gone from being a life changing decision, to something that can be done in a day. Research concluded that people now spend more time thinking about whether to buy a pair of shoes, than if they should get a dog.
“It all comes down to a combination of irresponsible breeding, and people just not doing enough research before they get a dog.
“The reality is, looking after a dog is very difficult- it takes a lot of time and money, and people just aren’t stopping to give it enough thought, and ending up with a dog that they don’t really know how to look after.”
Some selling sites, including New Zealand’s largest online marketplace ‘Trade Me’ have banned the sale of brachycephalic dogs as they do not want the responsibility of contributing to a ‘wider global problem’.
Trade Me’s policy and compliance leader, James Ryan, said: “We’ve seen research that 90-95 percent of these dogs have breathing obstructions to varying degrees.”
“We didn’t take this decision lightly. We know how loved and popular these breeds are, but after consultation with a range of animal experts and veterinary associations, we felt we couldn’t, in good conscience, continue the sale of animals who suffer lifelong health issues.”
Trade Me are now encouraging other selling sites to take similar action against the third party sales of dogs.
What the Health?
But for now, behind those adorable, wrinkly faces we’ve tagged our friends in with a heart eyes emoji countless times- science suggests there’s a dog struggling to breathe.
The launch of the British Veterinary Associations #BreedToBreathe campaign has won the vote of vets around the country, when it was discovered that 75% of brachycephalic dog owners were unaware of the problems that this type of dog faces.
The campaign involves a 10-step action plan for vets to promote the welfare of brachycephalic dogs to new owners, and offer advice and education on the potential problems they face.
The most common problem encountered by pugs and bulldogs is to do with their breathing. Flat wrinkly faces, small nostrils and a large soft palette makes panting from the simplest of movements extremely common, with over 50% of pugs and bulldogs affected. Experiments have also shown pugs cannot even pass a basic walking test- and over exercising can even cause sudden death.
They also snore to the extremes, which although makes a great viral video when they’re perfecting the noise of a helicopter, it is caused by sleep apnoea, a disorder that interrupts breathing during sleep- meaning the body, and the brain, is not getting enough oxygen.
Breeding can be a complicated process for these breeds which contributes to why they’re so expensive. They are mostly bred using artificial insemination due to their unusual body shape, and only end up having around two puppies per litter.
With demand being so high, there’s no doubt that major strain is put on breeders as well as dogs themselves to churn out puppies like they’re a factory. However, most bitches will have to undergo a caesarean to give birth, as the large heads and broad shoulders of the dogs make them unable to give birth naturally.
Vets are calling on people to avoid buying the breeds to not only avoid unnecessary suffering, but lower the number of cowboy breeders selling unhealthy puppies.
Emma Milner spent her career as a vet before founding Vets Against Brachycephalics– an organisation of practitioners from around the world uniting against the selling and reproduction of these breeds.
“I wanted the website to be an open letter to politicians” she says.
“In four months we’ve gained over 700 members. There’s also whole organisations that have signed up, including the BVA.
“We now have vets from 40 different countries on the list. It hasn’t even been publicised that much, so I think it’s quite a prominent show of how the profession feels about it.”
She added: “One of the things for me is that you would never find a brachy in nature. They’re just incompatible with life and breeding.”
Emma and her colleagues are now campaigning to have laws in place that prevent the breeding of future pugs and bulldogs, but not every expert feels this way.
Vet of over 30 years, Marianne Spencer, agrees that a flat-faced dog may not be the best choice for a family looking for an easy ride, but opposes that if people are truly adamant on getting a pug or bulldog, they should either adopt, or go to a reputable breeder and conduct all of the necessary background checks, including health and DNA testing.
Now dog shows such as Crufts have come under major fire for letting brachycephalic breeds into their competition, and have called upon the judges not to let ‘fat french bulldogs win’.
Pugs with longer snouts are also not allowed to enter, as it doesn’t match the current standards of the breed. Naturally, this has caused outrage amongst campaigners, as pugs may actually be a lot healthier if they were bred to look this way.
In 2008 the BBC dropped Crufts from their schedule, due to the dispute of ‘unhealthy’ pedigree dogs being allowed in the competition. This came after The Kennel Club complained to OFCOM that the BBC had launched an investigation into the genetic diseases caused by years of inbreeding, and said they would not continue their contract with Crufts if they couldn’t exclude certain breeds of dog from broadcast – although it has been found that 1 in 5 people disagree with the show anyway.
Crufts has previously attracted negative press from incidents including a German Shepherd with obvious hip dysplasia winning best of breed, and now people are worried incidents like this are going to become all too common, with no medical checks conducted on the dogs before they compete.
The Kennel Club has defended its decision, with secretary and head of communications, Caroline Kisko saying: “It isn’t within the area of The Kennel Club or Crufts that the problems exist.
“You only have to look online to see there are large numbers of dogs out there that are being bred by people that just don’t care, and are being sold to unsuspecting members of the public who don’t know the difference between a healthy and unhealthy version of the breed”.
Campaigners are now calling for stricter laws and breed standards- with some believing we should follow Switzerlands lead and put an end to brachycephalic dogs all together.
Qualzucht and Beyond
It’s 2016 in a Swiss court, also known as ‘The Palace of Justice’. Two people are waiting nervously in the dock ready for sentencing, after being the first to be convicted under the new ‘Qualzucht’ legislation, for the breeding of munchkin kittens.
‘Qualzucht’ is a German word translating to ‘torture breeding’, and Switzerland were the first to implement this new ruling, that has been branded as the next step towards owning a healthier generation of cats and dogs.
The law states that you can be prosecuted for breeding animals whose offspring is likely to suffer, and many UK animal welfare activists have already began to question if Qualzucht legislation could be the answer to preventing suffering endured by poorly-bred animals in this country.
Rachel Cox, zoologist and animal welfare specialist believes that the answer lies not only in the implementing of a similar law to Qualzucht, but to reverse the already-done damage by breeding the ‘unhealthiest’ breeds of dog with those that are deemed to be healthy.
“People should be educated when looking at buying a dog- whether that’s through it being mandatory for breeders to tell people problems their new puppy could have, or essential education organised by an animal charity before you’re allowed to purchase a dog.
“If people realised how damaged inbred breeds were, then popularity would decrease and so many dogs wouldn’t suffer for human gain. If short-nosed dogs were bred with dogs that have longer snouts, it is possible to reverse the damage to an extent.”
Even if convictions were rare, it seems cowboy breeders would be more cautious to produce healthy animals if they knew they could be held accountable for the future health of their puppies.
Public opinion on a potential ban is still very much divided with 43% of 1,000 people polled saying they would be in favour of it.
However it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a ban any time soon as The Kennel Club is currently looking at ways to improve current health of the dogs, including a registered-breeder-only policy on being able to sell.
No owner is in denial that laws on breeding standards and health of these dogs need to be taken more seriously, and short-lived joy will keep being replaced by devastating death in the puppy world with no surprise until we all change our attitudes.
Adopt, don’t shop.