New research from the RVC identifies serious impacts of rising popularity of brachycephalic dogs on veterinary profession - Veterinary Practice
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New research from the RVC identifies serious impacts of rising popularity of brachycephalic dogs on veterinary profession

The study highlights the conflict that vets are experiencing, bound both by their duty of care to their brachycephalic patients, but also to animal welfare at a population level

A new qualitative study by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has explored the lived experiences of veterinary surgeons regarding the provision of pre-purchase consultations (PPCs) for brachycephalic dogs. The study revealed in light of public demand to own brachycephalic dogs, veterinary surgeons are facing moral conflict and barriers to delivering effective PPCs and advice about the health issues of these dogs. The study concludes that a more united approach from the veterinary profession is needed to better support vets to confidently educate and influence pet owners about issues related to the extreme conformation of some breeds. 

Brachycephalic breeds, such as French bulldogs, pugs and English bulldogs, have become an increasingly popular choice of dog across the UK as more pet owners gravitate towards the exaggerated and perceived cute characteristics of these animals. Concerningly, however, these extreme features often cause severe and long-term skin, eye, spinal and breathing conditions among others which can be life-limiting. Therefore, PPCs, which offer prospective owners an opportunity to discuss their preferred breeds with their veterinary practice before committing to acquiring a specific dog, have previously been proposed to play an important role in helping owners make informed purchasing decisions. PPCs have also been championed by veterinary organisations such as the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA).

Engaging in PPCs and speaking up about the issues of brachycephaly with owners is perceived by many vets as a critical activity from a clinical, moral and veterinary ethical perspective, given their obligations to animal welfare at a population level and individual patients. However, the issues surrounding this approach of open and evidence-based communication are complex. For example, previous RVC research identified potential owner-related barriers such as strong dog-owner bonds and breed loyalty in owners of brachycephalic breeds, whereby owners may not want to hear about welfare issues associated with their preferred breed.

Therefore, a deeper understanding of the barriers to veterinary engagement with brachycephalic PPCs was needed to ascertain if and how they can be overcome. This study undertook interviews with vets currently working partly or exclusively with small animals across the UK to explore their experiences and attitudes towards brachycephalic PPCs.

The findings uncovered a range of diverse challenges, including structural and perceptual barriers, that often dissuaded or prevented veterinary surgeons from offering or delivering formalised pre-purchase advice regarding brachycephalic dogs. These included limited time and resources, and competition for appointment availability that is often prioritised for firefighting common clinical issues in brachycephalic dogs such that giving pre-purchase advice often just was not possible. Furthermore, interviewees identified growing public distrust in the profession and commercial conflicts as further barriers. Many veterinary surgeons felt that they had little or no power to overcome these barriers, which are highly intractable at an individual veterinarian level. A resulting moral conflict in veterinary surgeons between their perceived responsibilities to animal welfare versus the needs and wants of their clients and businesses was expressed by many vets in the study and was felt to compromise their professional integrity and autonomy.

To better support and empower vets to fulfil their ethical and moral responsibility to protect dogs from poor welfare and extreme conformations and deliver more effective brachycephalic PPCs, the study set a series of recommendations for the sector. These included:

  • Stronger veterinary leadership, including from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, BVA and the veterinary corporates, to build profession-wide solutions that overcome the barriers identified
  • Establish a joint, coherent and public-facing consensus from these organisations on the profession’s perceived acceptability of breeding and/or acquiring brachycephalic dogs to avoid reliance on individual opinions and actions
  • Greater pressure on other stakeholders perpetuating the brachycephalic crisis to drive societal change away from acquiring dogs with extreme conformations
  • Practical resourcing and technological solutions to facilitate PPCs more readily, including veterinary nurse-led and online consultations

Dr Rowena Packer, lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare Science at the RVC and lead author of the study, said:

This is the first time that the impact of brachycephaly on the practising veterinary surgeon has been explored. Our concerning results highlight the importance of recognising that the brachycephalic crisis is not only negatively impacting animals, but it is affecting human well-being, too.

“Our study highlights the conflict that vets are experiencing – bound both by their duty of care to their brachycephalic patients, but also to animal welfare at a population level. Trying to balance these responsibilities in the current working environment is challenging for some, leading to moral distress. It is, therefore, essential that we protect the mental well-being of vets on this issue as well as from an animal welfare perspective. 

“As the brachycephalic crisis continues to prevail, the support of leading veterinary organisations is vital in providing a united voice regarding the known harms of brachycephaly and support in facilitating PPCs to ensure vets are protected, and potential owners are fully informed when it comes to acquiring decisions.”

Dr Dan O’Neill, assoc prof of Companion Animal Epidemiology at the RVC and co-author of the study, said: “Over the past decade, the RVC has generated a vast evidence base revealing the true extent of the serious health issues of dogs with brachycephaly. This new study now focuses RVC research towards protecting the well-being of practising veterinary surgeons who are also shown as victims of the brachycephalic crisis. The clear message is that we all need to stop and think before buying a flat-faced dog.”

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