Dr Lizzie Youens BSc(Hons) BVSc
Dogs have evolved a long way from their wild ancestors, and are now a truly diverse species, coming in a huge variety of sizes, body shapes, coat types, features and personalities. Both humans and dogs have benefitted from canine domestication (they are man’s best friend, after all!), but the rigorous selection of certain genetic traits has its downsides. Many of our most popular breeds today have certain physical features that bring some associated health issues.
If you’re on the hunt for your next perfect pooch, you may be wondering which breed of dog has the least health problems. Well, there certainly are some breeds that seem to have more than their fair share of inherited medical conditions, but truth be told it is hard now to find a purebred dog breed with no health issues!
It’s always best to be informed about your choices when it comes to dog breed health problems, so we’ve put together a handy guide to dog health issues by breed type so that you can make an educated choice when researching your pet’s needs.
Brachycephalics (flat-faced dog breeds)
Brachycephalic animals have short, wide skulls and an undershot jaw. This gives their faces a flatter, ‘squashed’ appearance, a look which has now become very popular. Flat-faced dog breeds include French and English Bulldogs, Pugs, Boxers, Shih Tzus, Bull Mastiffs, Boston Terriers, and Lhasa Apso, etc.
The breeds are very popular and can have great characters and charm, but sadly their exaggerated features can lead to multiple health problems. In fact, brachycephalic dogs generally have low life expectancies.
Here are some of the health problems that these dogs may face:
Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS)
One of the most common health issues found in flat-faced dogs is breathing difficulties caused by their flat-faced conformation. The combination of small nostrils, elongated palate, small trachea and excess soft tissue obstructing the airway leads to noisy breathing, snoring and coughing as common findings. BOAS causes respiratory problems that are ongoing and often progressive throughout life and can interfere with these dogs’ everyday pleasures such as playing, sleeping and eating. Some people find a bulldog breed snoring away to be cute, but it’s actually a sign that they cannot breathe properly and should not be glorified.
Brachycephalic ocular syndrome
More health problems French bulldogs, Pugs and other brachycephalic dogs face include multiple concerns regarding their eyes. These breeds’ shallow eye sockets lead to protruding eyes, which can cause issues with inadequate tear coating of the eye. Ulceration of the cornea (the surface of the eye) is therefore common and these dogs often require multiple bouts of medication. Some may require surgery to correct eyelid abnormalities. Tear duct abnormalities and tear overflow are also common French Bulldog health issues, alongside other flat-faced breeds.
Many brachycephalic breeds struggle to birth naturally, often requiring veterinary intervention. This is usually due to the puppy’s head and shoulders being so large compared to the mother’s pelvis. Dystocia (difficult labour) is a risk factor for survival for both the mother and pups.
Dogs with flatter faces often have excessive folds of skin around the face, due to the shortening of the skull. These folds can easily become infected by yeasts and bacteria, as the dark and moist environment inside the folded skin encourages microorganisms to flourish. These repeated infections are painful and can cause serious skin damage. Corrective surgery may be needed in more severe cases.
Another tick on the list of health issues French Bulldogs, Shih Tzus, Boxers, Boston Terriers and other flat-faced breeds face is dental issues. Fitting the same number of teeth into a squashed and flattened face leads to dental overcrowding. This predisposes to dental plaque, gingivitis and potential tooth loss, and these breeds may need higher levels of costly and uncomfortable dental intervention at the vets.
Ability to perform normal behaviours
Brachycephalic breeding has become so extreme that some of these pups struggle to perform natural dog behaviour and everyday life. As well as breathing, some flat-faced breeds have difficulty grooming, eating, sleeping and communicating with other dogs.
Spotlight on a breed: French Bulldog common health issues
The Frenchie has become a hugely popular breed in the last few years. However, they sadly suffer from many health complaints due to their extreme breeding for certain points. French Bulldog health issues are numerous, and include the following:
- BOAS respiratory syndrome
- Skin allergies
- Skin fold dermatitis
- Ear disease
- Spinal disc disease
- Eye disease: ulcers, dry eye, cherry eye and conjunctivitis
- Patella luxation
- Dental disease
Having the correct proportions when it comes to body length, limb length and weight-to-size ratio is not just aesthetic: having an unusual or extreme conformation can, cause pain and discomfort, damage nerves and predispose to musculoskeletal conditions.
There are various extreme conformations that are present in modern dog breeds.
Short limbs with a long body
This description includes breeds such as the Dachshund, Corgi, Basset Hound, Pekingese or Skye Terrier – the world’s longest breed. The risk of spinal problems and intervertebral disc disease is one of the well-known health problems of long-bodied dogs. However, health issues with dachshunds and similar breeds often also include abnormal joints and limb deformities, which will not only reduce mobility and exercise tolerance but also predispose to arthritis. Other breeds are also affected by their stature. Corgi health problems, for example, include hip and elbow dysplasia and degenerative myelopathy as well as potential spinal issues.
The popularity of ‘teacup’ and ‘miniature’ breeds such as the Pocket Bully are rising, but they also come with some concerning features such as limb deformities and reduced flexibility to perform normal behaviours such as grooming.
Spotlight on a breed: health problems in Dachshunds
These quirky ‘sausage dogs’ have long been a popular choice of pedigree pet, but the list of health problems with dachshunds is sobering:
- Intervertebral disc disease
- Heart disease (seen in the miniature dachshund)
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy – this condition causes gradual sight loss.
- Dry eye
Heavy build on a small frame
Bulldog breeds, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Bullies and Pugs are all ‘stocky’ – they are heavy-set dogs with proportionally small limbs. They are often described as ‘big boned’, with a heavy, dome-shaped head. This additional weight, however, puts a great deal of strain on their limbs and joints. This can cause painful splaying of the toes, nail disorders and early arthritic changes in the joints.
Hip and elbow dysplasia
“Dysplasia” is a medical term which means abnormal development. In hip and elbow dysplasia, the joints do not form correctly, leading to reduced movement and pain. These dogs commonly proceed to suffer from early and progressive arthritis. These are usually conditions seen in large and giant breed dogs, who are putting a lot of weight onto their rapidly growing joints due to their size. Hip and elbow dysplasia are common in Labradors, Retrievers, Rottweilers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Newfoundlands and German Shepherds.
Spotlight on a breed: German Shepherd health problems
Fancy yourself a larger pooch? Got your eye on a Shepherd? Check out this list of German Shepherd health issues:
- Hip dysplasia
- Elbow dysplasia
- Degenerative myelopathy
- Pannus – a progressive eye condition
- Gastric dilatation and volvulus
- Gracilis muscle contracture
A subset of brachycephalic breeds has a further malformation – this time of the tail. One of the many Pug, Boston Terrier, English and French Bulldog health problems, a curly ‘pig-like’ tail is caused by a spinal genetic malformation, where the bones that make up the tail are both reduced, so the tail is short, and fused together so that it curls into a corkscrew.
This affliction may look fairly innocuous, but actually causes a range of issues. Dogs with a corkscrew tail are more likely to have further spinal deformities, leading to nerve problems, pain and issues with incontinence. They also commonly suffer from skin infections around the coiled areas of the tail.
You may see those long, droopy ears as cute, but they may actually be harbouring chronic infections! Dogs also use body language and posture to communicate, and both cropped and long ears prevent this normal behaviour. One of the classic Basset Hound health issues, chronic ear infections are itchy, and painful and can cause hearing loss.
Skin and coat disorders
You can find dogs with almost every type of coat: long-haired or short-haired, rough or smooth, all the different colours and patterns. You can even find dogs with no hair at all! But is this merely a matter of looks? Or can your dog’s skin and hair coat affect their health?
Dog breeds such as the Basset Hound, Shar Pei, Bloodhound and Mastiff are instantly recognisable, partly due to their characteristic wrinkles and skin folds. This excessive amount of skin in any location predisposes to chronic skin issues such as infections and wounds. Additionally, too much skin around the eyes can lead to corneal damage, infections and tear overflow.
Spotlight on a breed: Basset Hound health problems
Love the look of these droopy-eared pooches? Have a look at their common health complaints:
- Skin fold dermatitis
- Ear disease
- Elbow dysplasia
- Intervertebral disc disease
- Eye problems, including glaucoma
- Gastric dilatation and volvulus
Hairless dog breeds
Bald breeds such as the Mexican Hairless Dog and the Chinese hairless Crested Dog have been specifically bred to be free from hair. As well as getting chilly in very mild temperatures, they can also suffer from sunburn in warmer weather. Grooming is an important trait in dogs, and lack of a coat can lead to some behavioural problems. The Chinese hairless dog, as well as other bald breeds, can suffer from both dry or oily skin, due to abnormal hair follicles and skin oil production.
The merle (or dapple) coat patterning is highly distinctive and refers to a pattern of irregular splashes of dark coat colouring marbled over a lighter-coloured background. The merle pattern can come in a range of colours, and is present in many breeds, for example, a blue merle Border Collie, or a red merle French Bulldog. The gene which carries the merle pattern is dominant (M), but is also linked to some negative health conditions such as hearing and sight impairments. These are seen in homozygous ‘M’ dogs, who have two copies of the dominant merle gene, and may then be blind and/or deaf.
A wolfdog is produced by the mating of a domestic dog with a wolf. Examples include the Saarloos Wolfdog, which is a mix of a German Shepherd with a European Wolf, and the Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, which involves a German Shepherd with and a wolf. These crosses are not recommended as pets unless highly experienced owners, as they often retain wild wolf characteristics, and can have notable behavioural problems including aggressive tendencies and high prey drives. Their ownership and breeding are also controlled by a licence.
Breed health problems: final thoughts
What to take from all of this? There are plenty of dogs in this world who are living their best lives: healthy, happy, able to communicate and perform natural behaviours and free from discomfort, pain, illness and disease. Sadly, our desire for certain traits in some of the most popular breeds has led to breeding some dogs with physical characteristics that in fact have the potential to do harm. It’s always important to do your research when choosing a pup, as we all should have the best interests of ‘man’s best friend’ at heart.