Aka … have I got a pug problem?
“The poster pup for all that is wrong in the purebred world.” That’s what Jemima Harrison from the Campaign for the Responsible use of Flat-Faced Animals (Cruffa) said about pugs in the Telegraph last August. The statement was part of their campaign to pressure The Kennel Club to allow Retro Pugs (pug crossed with Jack Russell) to be shown at Crufts.
The argument is that purebred pugs, like their brachially-compromised pals French Bulldogs, are pre-destined for ill health and as such, anyone owning a pug should be sort of ashamed of themselves. Retro pugs on the other hand, have longer legs and snouts and are generally seen as a healthier option.
I’ve got pugs. I wasn’t a natural pug convert, but 15 years ago, when I returned home from a work trip I opened the front door and was accosted by a small beige and black fur-ball which promptly bounced into my shin and weed up my trouser leg.
“We’ve got a rescue dog,” announced my wife. Really? Where? I couldn’t detect any discernible canine presence, just this weird, flat-faced thing that looked to have been spawned by some unholy alliance of ET and the grizzly grandmother in those old Giles cartoons.
But then Queenie Gilbert (so named because she reminded me of the grubby, depressed-looking Victorian women you see in old photographs framed on certain pub walls) and I became pals. As soon as she did mad-dog (frenzied figure-of-eight sprints around the living room until point of collapse), I was laughing my head off.
Talking of cartoons, these crazy little blighters inspired this whole Pugs In Space adventure.
I’m now on my third rescue pug. Queenie Gilbert passed away a few years ago and before you could say “I think we should wait a while before…”, there was Juan Carlos, a deeply concerned-looking pug shipped in from Manchester.
Ronnie, as we now call him, has a sidekick, Lola. Whereas Ronnie is like Captain Mainwaring, doing everything by the book, Lola is mental, always getting into trouble, relentlessly breaking curfew and sniffing out whatever hideous left-overs lurk in our kids’ bedrooms. They’re a great double act.
10 years ago we were the only pug family we knew. Now our town is full of pugs. Celebrities from Gerard Butler to Jessica Alba to Hugh Laurie have fallen for the pesky little blighters. Pugs are cool. According to the Kennel Club, registered pug ownership has more than doubled to over 10,000 in the UK in the last 10 years. And they made make a big splash at this year’s Crufts (2020) in which no fewer than 258 were entered in the Toy Dog category.
The trouble is, not everyone – as Cruffa bluntly points out – believes that pugs in their present guise should exist at all. Pugs might be cute, but pugs are in-bred. Pugs are un-well. There’s no denying it: All her life Queenie Gilbert had violent seizures that broke your heart and put the fear of God into you. Ronnie (6) has back problems and I had to stop taking Lola (4 and suffers breathing problems) on early morning walks because she woke up half the neighbourhood with her crazed-wart hog on the loose impression. It seems that Crufts likes pugs just the way they are and are a little reticent regarding the Retro option.
“Retro pugs’ is a term that appears to have been coined by some involved with dogs,” said a Kennel Club spokesperson. “But there does not seem to be an agreed definition of what they actually are – whether they are pedigree Pugs which have been selectively bred to have longer snouts, or are Pugs that have been crossed with another breed. If you mean the Jack Russell/pug cross, then Retro Pugs’, as long as they are registered with the Kennel Club, can compete across a range of disciplines at Crufts, providing of course that they have qualified.”
“This is weasel wording from the KC,” insists Cruffa’s Jemima Harrison. “Crufts does have an activities register than is open to crossbreeds. A retro pug could take part in agility/obedience/fly-ball etc but it could never be shown.”
So they can run about a bit, show obedience and stuff but they can’t step up to the main stage, they can’t be ‘shown’. Whether Retro pugs ever get a proper look in at Crufts or not, pugs aren’t going to go away. So is enough being done to ensure breeding standards improve? Daniella Santos, President of the British Veterinary Association which launched #breedtobreathe explains exactly what pugs and French Bulldogs are up against:
“Brachycephalic (obstructive airways syndrome) dogs are dogs with flat faces, so the muzzle is squished up and leads to breathing problems due to narrow nostrils, long soft pallets, and very narrow windpipes. For some dogs, this impedes their quality of life and surgery can be required. In very extreme situations euthanasia is required. Because they have flat heads their eyes become bulgy so their eyelids can’t close properly which leads to eye problems corneal ulcers. Because of the folds in their skin, they can also get dermatitis. They can also get back problems.”
I’m beginning to feel like Basil Fawlty when the health inspector shames the hotel staff by reeling off a shamefully long list of issues in the kitchen.
“They can also have problems with their brains because the whole skull is squashed which can cause seizures. A purebred dog is bred to have particular characteristics, in this case, flat faces. With pugs and French bulldogs, they have become incredibly popular incredibly quickly with a big population boom which means you’re getting dogs from a very small gene pool.”
“But this isn’t about demonising Brachycephalic dog owners,” continues Daniella which comes as something of a relief… “We are calling for the Kennel Club to bring about a revision of the breed standards to call for evidence-based limits to physical features to make sure that high-risk breeds don’t continue to suffer unnecessarily. Show judges also have a responsibility to award dogs that don’t show extremes of their confirmation.”
In response to the situation, the Cambridge University launched the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme for dogs with BOAS (Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome) in early 2019. It’s a health testing scheme in which brachycephalic dogs intended for breeding can undergo this test and be scored. A score of zero means your pug is good and healthy and ok for breeding. Scores in the ‘3 area’ mean the complete opposite.
Someone who knows all about the pros and cons of pug breeding is Cynthia Timbury, a pug breeder (and Vice President of the Pug Dog Club) from Lincolnshire who entered two dogs into this year’s Crufts, Bella and Dan. Pug breeders are used to justifying themselves and she is quick to point out that, out of the seven highly excited pugs occupying the kennel club library (including Lola and her pal Lily), none are making any wheezing or distressed sounds. Basically, they couldn’t look happier.
“I had my first pug 36 years ago,” says Cynthia “Unfortunately by the time she was two she’d lost both her eyes, in those days they did have really bulgy eyes and it put me off for a few years. Now there is medication and I think we act a lot quicker and the bulgy eyes have been bred out of them. It’s only with poorly bred pugs that you see the eyes on the sides of the heads. In the past they were like caricatures of themselves. I’ve been breeding them for about 14 years. Bella who is in Crufts this week was one of the first to undergo the BOAS tests and got a grade zero.”
In order to try and educate would-be breeders and owners, Cynthia distributes thousands of leaflets at events such as the National Pet Show. The leaflets ask ‘Buying a flat-faced dog?’ and warn of the potential health problems, urging people to research before proceeding.
The simple way forward if you want a pug with a decent chance of being healthy is to go to a Kennel Club Assured Breeder. They have to use BOAS scheme. And make sure you see the certificate.
“Before we choose a pug to breed we look at health and confirmation,” says Cynthia. “The conformation (the externally visible details of a dog’s structure) has to be right because it has a direct effect on the health. If the head confirmation isn’t right and they have bulgy eyes they’re going to have problems.”
Cynthia is clearly one of the good ones, but how can the powers that be make sure that she is the norm rather than the exception. Bill Lambert, Head of Health and Welfare at the Kennel Club said: “The Kennel Club works alongside a number of organisations including the BVA, to help those brachycephalic breeds suffering because of a huge increase in popularity. As they are aware, every breed standard, to which a dog is judged at dog shows, makes it absolutely clear that exaggerations which are detrimental in any way to health are unacceptable, and will not be rewarded. Unfortunately breed standards mean very little to the vast majority of breeders, owners and puppy buyers. Our primary aim must be to tackle the modern day problems of rogue breeding which is exacerbating the suffering of these breeds, and to plan for a healthier future.’
Basically it’s up to you. You can either play pug Russian Roulette or you can go slightly out of your way to research where your dog is coming from and where, if anywhere to should be going. All our pugs have been rescues, so we didn’t get a choice. They’d already been displaced for whatever reason and they needed a new home. We’re doing the dog world a favour, right?
I wonder how many of the 258 pugs entered for this year’s Crufts had been down the BOAS route? The scheme only launched last February so it’s probably unfair to expect the Kennel Club to know just yet, but all the responsible vested parties (KC, BVA/responsible breeders) seem to be on the same page regarding the future. Ultimately there needs to be a facility at every vet in the country to get your flat-faced dog BOAS tested before you introduce it to would-be suitors. Anyone who cares will surely do exactly that. Anyone who doesn’t care about it now probably never will.
And as for Retro Pugs being ‘shown’ at Crufts, we’re more likely see pugs fly.