Frenchies are #1 … and veterinarians are concerned

Expert outlines precautions about owning French bulldogs
one black and one tan French Bulldog sitting on green grass
French bulldogs are the most popular dog breed, according to the American Kennel Club. Photo: iStock/Tatyana Consaul

In March, the American Kennel Club (AKC) announced a historic upset: the most popular dog breed in 2022 was the French Bulldog, unseating the Labrador retriever, which had held that title for 31 consecutive years. Known for their charming and adaptable nature and generally quiet demeanor, according to the AKC, “Frenchies” are prone to health issues. We asked a veterinary expert to explain why veterinarians are concerned.

Much of the veterinary world was concerned at the announcement that French bulldogs were now the most popular dog in the United States. If you want a Frenchie, please get one from a reputable breeder, who has health records and works with Orthopedic Foundation for Animals to have health clearances performed, including a screening for brachycephalic disease.

The Humane Society of the United States has sage advice about finding a reputable breeder.

Here’s why there is such a concern about ownership of French bulldogs:

Breathing problems – Frenchies are very likely to develop Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). Due to their short nose, they have narrowed nostrils and a long soft palate, as well as the potential for everted laryngeal saccules and/or collapse, nasal obstruction, tonsil or tongue enlargement, and gastroesophageal reflux or hiatal hernia. This means they are often gasping for air, vomiting and regurgitating, and unable to exercise. Surgery can palliate but not cure this. 

If you own a Frenchie, it is recommended to be tested for BOAS if you plan to breed him/her and for general knowledge. While the snoring noises Frenchies can make sound cute, they signify significant airway obstruction, which can be fatal.  Surgery can make it easier for them to breathe, but doesn’t cure them. The breathing problems can also lead to frequent stomach problems with vomiting, regurgitation, and, while not life threatening, a lot of gas.

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) – A slipped disc in their back is highly common among Frenchies. This can result in sudden paralysis, requiring surgery to treat, which may or may not be successful and may recur.  Many Frenchies have vertebral malformation, meaning their back formed abnormally and this can worsen their signs. 

Brain tumors – Frenchies get a high rate of brain tumors at a young age. Their short nose makes them more likely to develop pituitary gland tumors and glial cell tumors. A Swedish study published by PLOS Genetics in 2015 identified the French bulldog among four breeds with an elevated risk of developing glioma, the most common form of malignant primary brain tumors in humans and dogs.

Heart base tumors – Due to chronically low oxygen, Frenchies often develop tumors near their heart. A study of heart base tumors published in Veterinary and Comparative Oncology in 2019 revealed heart base tumors occur commonly in older brachycephalic dogs. Effective treatment options are limited to either surgery for removal of the pericardium or radiation therapy. Among the study’s 27 dogs treated with toceranib [the only dog-specific anti-cancer drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration], the overall median survival time was just over two years.

Colitis – Young Frenchies have a greater risk than other breeds of developing Granulomatous colitis, indicating a presence of invasive E. coli, which is often treated with fluoroquinolone antimicrobials and can fortunately induce lasting clinical remission. Colitis is severe and chronic diarrhea.

Increase risk of humeral fracture Research conducted by the University of London Royal Veterinary College and shared in 2020 identified French bulldogs as eight times more likely to suffer an elbow fracture than cross breed dogs. Dr. Dan O’Neill, a senior lecturer at the RVC and co-author of the research paper said, “The UK is currently in the midst of a population explosion of French Bulldogs. While these dogs may seem very attractive to own, they have many intrinsic health issues.”

Pulmonic stenosis – An inherited congenital heart defect, pulmonic stenosis is commonly found in certain dog breeds, including French bulldogs. A study of 66 French bulldogs published in the Journal of Veterinary Cardiology in 2018 concluded “Pulmonic stenosis in FBs is commonly severe and complex, with … a high incidence of pulmonary trunk hypoplasia and cardiac death.” In the study, the median survival time after diagnosis was less than three years. Cardiologists at Cummings School commonly perform balloon valvoplasty and stenting on Frenchies.

Skin issues and allergies – Due to their unique physical characteristics, Frenchies regularly contract skin issues, such as skin fold, acute moist, and/or contact dermatitis, pyoderma (a bacterial skin infection), and canine acne. Furthermore, food and/or environmental allergies in French bulldogs, from a host of possible sources, can result in either skin or gastrointestinal issues.

Eye issues – The forward positioning of their eyes due to the “squished” nose appearance predisposes them to corneal injury and defects. This positioning also makes them prone to prolapsing their eyes in cases of trauma or head injury.

Veterinarians want people to own dogs, but they should be healthy and happy ones so you can enjoy giving and receiving love from them for many years.

Dr. Elizabeth Rozanski is an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine with research interests including respiratory physiology and ventilatory management.