A comprehensive study published in the Public Library of Science One analyzed demographic data on over 2 million dogs under veterinary care across the UK.
This large-scale study provides important insights into breed popularity, breeding practices, and their impacts on canine health and welfare in the UK dog population.
The research team, led by The Royal Veterinary College, aimed to report detailed breed information that could inform efforts to improve dog wellbeing. They drew data from VetCompass, a program that collects clinical records from veterinary practices for research.
With growing concerns over breeding of dogs with extreme conformations prone to chronic health issues, this study offers a much-needed look at breed trends and their welfare repercussions based on veterinary evidence.
By profiling which types of dogs are most prevalent in the UK, and digging into their conformational traits, the researchers highlighted priority areas to better support dogs.
This study soundly demonstrates that we still have much work to do.
Most Common Breeds
The study first reported on the most frequently seen dog breeds among the over 2 million dogs under veterinary care in 2019.
Overall, crossbreeds were the most prevalent, accounting for 24% of the dogs. After crossbreeds, the top 10 breeds nationally were:
- Labrador Retriever
- Jack Russell Terrier
- English Cocker Spaniel
- Staffordshire Bull Terrier
- Shih Tzu
- French Bulldog
- Border Collie
- Yorkshire Terrier
These top 10 breeds represented almost 60% of the total UK dog population.
Looking specifically at dogs under 1 year old, the rankings shifted slightly, indicating changing preferences. The top 5 puppy breeds were:
- French Bulldog
- Labrador Retriever
- English Cocker Spaniel
The rise of the French Bulldog and designer hybrid Cockapoo among puppies suggests their popularity is surging, while old favorites like the Labrador Retriever remain constant. Tracking breed trends is key to monitoring the prevalence of dogs with chronic health issues.
Breeding Practices Impacting Welfare
The preferences revealed by breed popularity point to concerning trends in breeding practices and consumer demand that do not prioritize dog health.
Overall, 70% of the dogs were purebred, stemming from closed studbooks that severely limit genetic diversity and increase inherited disorders within breeds.
Additionally, 18% of the dogs were brachycephalic breeds with short, smashed faces like French Bulldogs and Boston Terriers. These faces may be coveted for their cute appeal, but come with respiratory issues, eye problems, and overheating.
Even more troubling, 53% of the brachycephalic dogs were severely affected, according to the study’s measures.
Beyond flat faces, over half the dogs fell into chondrodystrophic breeds like Dachshunds that have disproportionately short limbs and often suffer from limb deformities and spinal disease.
Yet consumer desire for dogs with these exaggerated physical features continues to drive breed demand rather than consideration of better functionality and innate health.
This upholds breeding practices that prioritize exaggerated features to meet breed standards for dog shows and consumer demand for cute aesthetics over health and welfare.
Rising Brachycephalic Popularity
A key finding of potential future concern was the substantial popularity of brachycephalic (short-muzzled) breeds, especially among young dogs.
The study found that a full 34% of dogs under 1 year old were classified as brachycephalic breeds. This included very common picks like French Bulldogs, Pugs, and English Bulldogs which have surged in popularity in recent years.
The prevalence of these dogs with inherent breathing difficulties as puppies provides a worrying outlook for their welfare as they age. Brachycephalic breeds are predisposed to potentially severe respiratory distress from Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS) as they grow into adulthood.
Yet despite the abundance of evidence on their health issues, consumers enamored by the squished faces continue to fuel demand for brachycephalic puppies. This primes an incoming generation of dogs for foreseeable welfare impairment.
One solution could be intentionally crossbreeding brachycephalic dogs with breeds that have longer muzzles, which can help alleviate some of the breathing difficulties in the offspring. One example is the Boston Terrier Lab mix.
However, consumer demand remains heavily focused on purebred brachycephalic breeds. And this trend is not limited to the UK.
In 2022, French Bulldogs became the most registered breed in the US, overtaking Labrador Retrievers in popularity. So this rising brachycephalic obsession applies to the US dog population as well.
Breeding choices should be guided by what is best for dogs, not human whims. But this priority becomes reversed when dogs are treated as accessories rather than sentient beings.
By selecting for cute faces over respiratory functioning, well-intentioned owners ultimately compromise canine welfare.
This large-scale study sounds the alarm on the need for more ethical and welfare-focused breeding and buying of dogs in the UK.
Current breeding practices too often prioritize appearance and exaggerated features over health and function. Closed studbooks limit genetic diversity and consumer whims drive demand for dogs prone to chronic issues that compromise welfare.
Brachycephalic breeds exemplify this crisis, with one-third of puppies destined for a lifetime of breathing impairment if popularity trends continue.
While looks may spur initial purchase, it is a dog’s intrinsic health and personality that shape long-term quality of life for dogs and the humans who love them.
As a society, we must extend our compassion towards dogs not only as cute companions, but as sentient beings deserving of good health from nose to tail.
Education and awareness can help drive more ethical breeding for function over form. And understanding health impacts of appearance-driven selection can empower buyers to make welfare-focused choices.
By working together, we can chart a better course for dogs that values quality of life as the prize breed attribute. The trove of breed data from this study can guide us on that journey.