Paws for thought: High cost of caring for designer dogs

Paws for thought: High cost of caring for designer dogs

They may be the stars’ puppy of choice, but pugs and certain other breeds can cost a small fortune to care for due to their inbred health problems, writes Sharon Ní Chonchúir.

LADY Gaga’s French bulldogs Asia, Koji, and Gustavo follow her everywhere she goes. Zoella’s pug Nala is almost as famous as her YouTuber owner. 

President Michael D Higgins’s Burmese mountain dogs, Bród and Síoda, even have their own (unofficial) Twitter account.

Suddenly, it seems pedigree breeds — or so-called designer dogs — are everywhere.

It’s not just celebrities who are buying them. “There were 300 French bulldogs in Ireland three or four years ago,” says Pat O’Doherty, a vet at the Gilabbey Veterinary Hospital, Cork.

“Now there are approximately 14,000. That’s a massive increase and a lot of it is down to the influence of celebrity culture.”

Irish Veterinary Association spokesperson Alan Rossiter has also witnessed this trend. “Westies (West Highland terriers) were more popular a few years ago but now the fashion is for French bulldogs and pugs,” he says.

These dogs are known as brachycephalic breeds. They are bred to have shortened skulls so their eyes are large, round, and wide-set and their noses are flat.

It’s a look that is perceived as being cute and it’s a key factor in why many owners choose them.

What these owners may not realise is that this cuteness has its drawbacks. Their shortened skulls can lead to pugs and bulldogs having serious health problems.

“There are definite health problems with bulldogs and pugs,” says Rossiter, whose practice, Blacklion Pet Hospital, is in Greystones, Co Wicklow. 

Paws for thought: High cost of caring for designer dogs

“They are anatomically abnormal, and the most severe ones are an anatomic abomination.”

Breathing difficulties

Obstructed breathing is the main problem. “Just about every pug and bulldog I see in my clinic needs surgery to be able to breathe properly,” says Rossiter. 

“That’s a huge cost for owners. CT scans, X-rays, bloods, and the surgery itself add up to well over €1,500.”

Other pedigree breeds have significant health problems too. “Half of all Samoyed dogs are diabetic,” says Rossiter.

More than half of all cavalier King Charles spaniels have serious heart problems. West Highland terriers suffer skin problems.

“Labradors suffer from arthritis and ear problems and big breeds such as great Danes and St Bernards are at increased risk of cancer, arthritis, and heart problems, which means that they have shortened lifespans as a result.”

O’Doherty cites the English bulldog as another breed with multiple problems. 

“It’s got the same breathing issues as a French bulldog. It’s got mobility problems because of its short stubby legs and 80% of females require caesarean sections to give birth because their pelvic canals aren’t normal.”

Medical bills

Because of these complex health problems, keeping these dogs as pets can be an expensive business. “Lots of owners think that the only expense is buying the pup for approximately €1,000,” says Rossiter. 

They don’t realise that with these dogs, they are opening themselves up to ongoing expense.

I’ve already mentioned how expensive it can be to treat breathing problems in brachycephalic dogs. But say your dog is diagnosed with diabetes. That costs €2,000 for the initial treatment in the first year and €1,000 for every year after that.

There are several reasons why these costs are high. “What vets offer now is lightyears ahead of what we could offer 10 or 20 years ago,” says Rossiter.

“It’s highly specialised and thanks to advancements, we can give pugs, French bulldogs, and other breeds a quality of life that we couldn’t have done before. But there’s no doubt that the medicines and corrective techniques that are required are expensive.”

Both vets agree owners should consider pet insurance — yet another expense. As part of my research for this article, I got several quotes for a French bulldog pup. The prices ranged from €297 to €422.

A French bulldog
A French bulldog

O’Doherty warns that owners will probably end up paying higher premiums in the long term. 

“You have to remember that insurance companies are businesses. The more often you claim, the higher your premium will be. These dogs are known to have health problems so you will probably end up making at least one significant claim on your insurance.”

Breeding programmes

It’s not all bad news for fans of pugs and bulldogs. 

The Irish Veterinary Association is currently working with the Irish Kennel Club to encourage breeders to make a more responsible approach to breeding healthy pedigree pups.

“We have policies in place to improve the genetic stock so that puppies aren’t born with these health problems in the future,” says Jim Stephens, chair of the Irish Kennel Club’s health and welfare committee. 

“We use standardised tests from Finland to identify healthy pugs and bulldogs that the breeders can then breed from.”

Rossiter has high hopes that this will work. 

“The Irish wolfhound was prone to serious liver problems, but breeders worked together to breed that dog correctly and now, we have a good healthy stock,” he says.

“With pugs and French bulldogs, it will be a slow process but if we work together, all new puppies born by 2030 will be able to breathe properly.”

O’Doherty would like to see pet owners choosing some of the cross-breeds now available. “Take the pugalier,” he says. 

That’s a King Charles and pug crossbreed that dilutes the genetic heart and breathing issues so common in those dogs. They make great pets as they have lovely behaviour and look cute while having much-reduced health issues.

Awareness needed

Both vets say the public needs to know more about pedigree dogs, especially the brachycephalic breed.

“They should be told what to expect when they buy a pug or bulldog,” says Rossiter. “When they snort or snore as they breathe, it isn’t cute; it’s a sign of ill-health.”

If you have your heart set on adopting a pug or French bulldog, the best way of ensuring that you choose a healthy puppy is to take some advice from your local vet.

“Our advice is free,” says O’Doherty. 

“We want to help you to make the best choice when it comes to choosing a pet, so we’ll talk you through the pros and cons of your preferred breed and make sure you’re fully informed about all of your options.”

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