Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
The English bulldog may look irresistibly cuddly as a puppy with all those wrinkles, and once grown up, many cannot help but sport that signature "sour mug"—perhaps the most distinctive feature of this breed. Definitively, this breed is quite unique and cannot be confused for any other ones. But a multitude of health problems hide behind these distinctive traits many fanciers appreciate.
In 2009, Adam Goldfarb of the Humane Society of the United States reported to The Augusta Chronicle that English bulldogs are the “poster child for breeding gone awry." The Humane Society’s chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, even went so far as to claim that the English bulldog “is the most extreme example of genetic manipulation in the dog-breeding world that results in congenital and hereditary problems."
Why Are Bulldogs Prone to So Many Health Issues?
So what's up with this dog breed, and what health problems should perspective English bulldogs be prepared for once they bring their bulldog home? Let's start by looking a bit at genetics and how things went downhill.
The Controversial Origins of the Breed
The term bulldog derives from the ancient English tradition of bull-baiting. In this bloody sport, bulldogs were utilized to immobilize the bull by biting its snout and pinning him to the ground. Even though this sport seemed to be mostly practiced as a form of recreation, there was belief back then that bull-baiting helped tenderize the meat because it helped thin the blood. Indeed, bylaws were stipulated in many areas requiring that all meat had to be "baited" before being sold. Finally, in In 1835, the Cruelty to Animals Act outlawed this sport in Great Britain.
Because the bulldog's work was over, its numbers started decreasing dramatically. It was thanks to fanciers in 1865 who started developing dog clubs that the bulldog was resurrected and developed into the modern English bulldog.
The "Olde English Bulldogge" vs. Today's English Bulldog
The fact is that today's English bulldog is much different from its ancestors. When the bulldog was selectively bred for bull-baiting, it had to be strong and healthy. Indeed, the original bulldogs were taller and heavier than today's bulldog. They had strong jaws and wide mouths so they could hold the bull by the snout. Their short, flat noses helped them breathe while they held the bull down. The wrinkles worked well as "gutters" letting the bull's blood flow away from their eyes.
Select fanciers have been trying hard to re-create this original healthy bulldog. In the 1970s, David Leavitt created a special lineage meant to recreate this healthier working bulldog from the 1800s and called it the "Olde English Bulldogge".
A Drastic and Unhealthy Physical Transformation
So how did a healthy working dog turn into the unhealthy breed we see today? Breeders worked hard to soften the temperament of the original bull-baiting dogs, and it is thanks to these breeders that today's fanciers can appreciate a dog that is docile and affectionate. But at the same time, they also drastically changed their physique.
Since they were no longer utilized in bull-baiting, there was a desire for smaller dogs. So the tall, 90-pound original bulldog, was shrunk into a much shorter dog and its traits were deeply exaggerated through selective breeding. The muzzle was drastically shortened, the head was made bigger, the under-bite became very pronounced and the chest and forelegs were malformed. Basically, today's bulldog is a caricature of what it once was. This has led to the incredible number of health issues we are seeing in this breed and which are listed in the next paragraphs below.
The Many Health Issues of English Bulldogs
Ever wondered why English bulldog puppies cost so much? A whole lot of money and time goes into screening these dogs for health issues, breeding and whelping. But don't be fooled in believing that money spent on the puppy is one -time shot. Rather, expenses will continue to pile up and spike as this breed is high-maintenance and prone to a plethora of health problems. For a good reason they say if you really want to make your dear veterinarian rich, get an English bulldog.
Before breeding two English bulldogs, reputable breeders will conduct several health tests to ensure their breeding stock is healthy and free of any hereditary disorders that can be passed on to their offspring. Buying from a breeder who doesn't health test its stock, is like playing Russian roulette with your bulldog puppy.
The following are some hereditary health issues that may be passed down from from bulldog parents:
- patellar luxation (dislocation of the kneecap)
- hip dysplasia (misalignment of the hip socket)
- elbow dysplasia (abnormality of the elbow joint)
- hyperuricosuria (excessive uric acid in urine)
- heart disease (pulmonary stenosis, aortic stenosis, mitral valve disease, to just name a few)
- tracheal hypoplasia (a malformation of the tracheal cartilage rings)
- congenital deafness
- eye problems (cherry eye, eyelid problems)
- thyroid problems
Nature itself must have decided that this dog breed isn't meant to thrive; indeed, problems with this breed start even before the very beginning of life. First off, breeding two English bulldogs is not as easy as in other breeds. Many English Bulldogs are incapable of mating without assistance.
Difficulties stem from their conformation, making it difficult for the male to "reach" the female which has a reproductive tract set high on her body. The female must support a lot of weight because the bulldog's largest amount of weight is concentrated on the forequarters On top of that, males get easily exhausted and overheat in the process. This may lead to frustration, aggression and even injuries.
Not surprisingly, several females are reluctant to breed and males may even vomit from all the strain. For this reason, most breeders choose to use artificial insemination.
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Difficulties do not end with the breeding though; indeed, more trouble is down the road as the female gets close to whelping. A very high percentage of bulldogs (about 95 percent) need to deliver via c-section because of this breed's massive heads and shoulders.
So the puppies are born after a successful c-section, now what? More trouble is on the way. Because the puppies are delivered by C-section, they risk being rejected by her mother. The reason? She may be lacking important hormones (oxytocin) produced when giving birth naturally that aid in maternal instinct and lactation. When this happens, the breeder must take over feeding the puppies which during the first weeks must happen every two hours. Even if mother dog accepts the puppies and all seems to be going well, careful supervision is needed to prevent her from accidentally rolling over and crushing the pups.
The same wrinkles that many bulldog fans adore, are those that may lead to annoying skin problems. This condition is known as "skin fold dermatitis" and is an inflammatory condition of the skin due to the wrinkles causing rubbing and trapping of moisture. This is commonly found in the facial folds in English bulldogs causing annoying irritations, itching and scratching. The bulldog breed needs regular grooming to keep the wrinkles clean daily. Other skin conditions this breed is prone to include eczema, seborrhea, allergies, hot spots and acne.
The English bulldog is prone to what is known as "brachycephalic syndrome" due to this breed's facial features. The culprit for this problems are the stenotic nares (narrowed nostrils), elongated soft palates (long roof of the mouth that blocks entrance to the trachea), hypoplastic tracheas (narrowed diameter) and laryngeal saccules (pouches in the voice box that obstruct airway flow) dogs with pushed-in faces are prone to. All these problems are likely to cause noisy breathing, snorting, snoring, coughing, gagging, retching, vomiting predisposition to tire easily, collapsing and even fainting episodes. Over time, the increased effort caused by trouble breathing may put strain on the heart. These symptoms intensify in warm, humid weather.
When we think about hip dysplasia we often think about large breed dogs such as Labs or Rottweilers, did you know that the English bulldog ranks highest for hip dysplasia? According to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, English bulldogs top the list for this orthopedic condition. Because of this breed's mouth conformation, the English bulldog's jaw is undershot, with the bottom jaw protruding from the upper one. This causes problems eating causing the English bulldog to swallow a lot of air which translates into excess flatulence.
Because bulldogs love to hit the snooze button so much, they are prone to obesity, which only makes problems worse. They can hardly walk with their shuffling gait and end up breathless after a simple romp. Put an English bulldog in a swimming pool and they will just sink. On top of that, this breed is prone to anesthesia complications making them high risk for even the most simple, routine procedures.
Is It Ethical to Breed Bulldogs?
At this point, it's worth pondering if it's ethically correct to breed this breed at all. The British Kennel Club has been taking action and has revised some of its standards, requiring a smaller, wider head and less facial wrinkles. It's therefore very important to be aware of what hides behind that adorable face that elicits cuddling.
Veterinarian Dr. Meredith Kennedy claims: "Bulldog owners are sometimes shocked and dismayed at how high-maintenance these dogs are, and they are not prepared for the high cost of corrective surgeries and ongoing medication and health care.” Raising awareness is therefore fundamental.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli
Malou ranchez on May 06, 2020:
Thanks so much for all the infos.. i really needed those. I got my english bulldog 2 weeks ago and hes only 5 mos. And this is my first time to have 1 like this.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 17, 2018:
Hello Becky, thanks for your comments. I had a Persian cat which I loved to pieces, but I kept saying all the time I got her, never again. Noisy breathing, eyes that were always runny and the discharge had this horrible smell. Fur that tangled no matter how much I brushed her. With her small mouth she has a hard time even picking up kibble. The good news is that now some breeders are trying to create healthier versions of bulldogs, they are called Olde English bulldogge and are tad bit healthier and are supposed to live longer lives too.
Becky on March 13, 2018:
This is a very interesting article. I love my bulldog. It seems like people are always looking for new ways to “fix” things when they arnt broken in the first place. Now look what happened. They made an animal that struggles with multiple health problems and not only that, people that don’t care about it and just breed and breed and breed them for money. I know for a fact because I took in one of those bulldogs. He came from a puppy mill. He’s had two surgeries on his eyes, needs more, his front legs are turned out and he just turned one. But I wouldn’t trade him for the world! I wish there were harsher laws for those places out there.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 17, 2014:
I love your statement that God is superior than man, isn't it true for so many things? We try to play God and mess up with genetics causing congenital problems and we create genetically modified foods that are harmful to us. Some people say that if we put all the dog breeds on an island and allowed them to mate freely, we would likely end up 100 years later with a very healthy dog.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on May 16, 2014:
I feel sad for the English Bulldog. They are so cute, but so vulnerable to health issues. It just goes to show, God is a far superior creator than man. Some things, we really should not match up with.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 16, 2014:
Thanks for stopping by and commenting DDE. My cousin has an English bulldog and when he sees me he gets so worked up he pants for hours and he never wants to go on walks. Sometimes he seems like he is really struggling to breed. I think the Old English Bulldogge is a healthier option for those who like bulldog looks.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 16, 2014:
A great hub indeed. I like dogs and learned lots from your hubs. This one has taught me all I need to know about this breed.