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With all of their health problems, should bulldogs continue to be bred?


A lot of dog owners are paying attention to a recent court ruling in Norway. A judge there banned the breeding of bulldogs. Their flat, smushy (ph) faces can cause health problems, and an animal rights group argued that the breed is so unhealthy, it amounts to animal cruelty. NPR's Lauren Sommer reports on the growing debate over bulldogs.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: First things first, let's meet the dogs.


COLLEEN THILGEN: This is Rudy. Can you say hi?

SOMMER: Colleen Thilgen has three bulldogs at her home in Oakland, Calif.


SOMMER: There's also Abbie and Mojo.

THILGEN: Do I absolutely love the breed? I can't imagine not having one - or three.

SOMMER: Altogether, Thilgen has had six over her lifetime, and she says having bulldogs means being a very involved owner because the way they look can cause problems, like those wrinkles on their faces.

THILGEN: See how she has this big, wide, deep fold? So we have to clean it almost every day because it gets infected.

SOMMER: That flat face also means the dogs have a short airway, so this is what some sound like after a few minutes of running.


SOMMER: It's tough for them to cool off.

THILGEN: They cannot sustain heavy heat. We would never walk them if it was over 80 degrees.

SOMMER: Some dogs have such serious breathing problems, they need surgery. One of Thilgen's dogs had to have its nasal openings widened. Others have their soft palate cut back if it's blocking their airway.

ERIK OLSTAD: In the face and in the nose, there's all this redundant tissue, extra tissue.

SOMMER: Dr. Erik Olstad is a vet and assistant professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

OLSTAD: How I describe this to patients is that it's like moving from a four-bedroom house with all the furniture into a one-bedroom apartment, but you have all the same furniture.

SOMMER: Olstad says their compact bodies and large heads also make it hard for bulldogs to have puppies.

OLSTAD: They really can't give natural birth anymore. I have to do c-sections on these dogs, but the monetary incentive for these breeders is so high that they can justify these added costs. These puppies can sell anywhere from 3- to $6,000 per puppy.

SOMMER: Studies show that dogs with flattened faces have more health problems than those that don't. That's what prompted Ashild Roaldset, CEO for the Norwegian Society for the Protection of Animals, to bring a court case under Norway's animal welfare laws.

ASHILD ROALDSET: We say that the dogs are our best friend, but we are not the bulldog's best friend at all. You know, if this was your best friend, you wouldn't want it to have all these conditions. You would want it to have a better life.

SOMMER: The court agreed and said bulldog breeding is banned unless it's to bring in new genetic material and make the animals healthier. The case is being appealed, but it's made waves across the world.

JEFF RYMAN: We at the Bulldog Club of America do believe in our standard. We have upheld it for over 100 years.

SOMMER: Jeff Ryman is president of the Bulldog Club of America, the group that determines the standard for purebred bulldogs - that's the rules about their look and temperament. He says their health issues are mostly due to irresponsible breeders, not the breed standard itself.

RYMAN: Changing the standard after 100 years is not necessary. We want to follow the standard, and we want to encourage and educate those that don't to follow the standard, to health test their dogs. Then we get healthier dogs.

SOMMER: Ryman says his organization has a list of health tests for breeders to use, but research shows that breeding out bulldog health problems may not be possible. That's because the dogs are so inbred. Danika Bannasch, a veterinary geneticist at the University of California, Davis, says the issue is, to have a purebred dog, you can only breed it with other purebred dogs.

DANIKA BANNASCH: You can't introduce outside dogs into it, and so that really limits the genetic diversity that's available.

SOMMER: A recent study found that the bulldog gene pool may be too limited to eliminate all its health problems, even if all breeders try.

BANNASCH: Yeah, I don't think it's the breeders themselves. They're not necessarily trying to breed unhealthy dogs. It's the breed themselves that are unhealthy, and there isn't much that they can do about it within the context of the purebred breed.

SOMMER: Getting rid of some bulldog health problems may also mean changing the shape of its body, like giving it a longer snout. That would mean the breeders and dog owners would have to accept that a healthier bulldog may be one that looks a little bit different. Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "HEY BULLDOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.