We’ve Run Out of Time to Save the Bulldogs

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Photo: David Leahy Ltd

At the top of an old New York Times Magazine story on English bulldogs, titled “Can the Bulldog Be Saved?”, are two very different renderings of the breed. On the left is the familiar squat, smoosh-faced, potbellied dog we’re familiar with. On the right is a sort of stretched-out fantasy model: longer and leaner, with a bigger tail, a more prominent snout, and skin stretched more tightly across its body.

This second dog doesn’t actually exist — it’s what the bulldog would look like, according to veterinarians, if we hadn’t bred it to be extra-prone to a long list of health issues: skin infections, ear infections, eye infections, heart problems, joint problems, difficulty breathing, autoimmune disorders, cancer. Some of these elevated risks stem from the fact that English bulldogs tend to be incredibly inbred. Others are by-products of the same goofy-looking traits that owners look for (the short snout, for example, makes it harder to get enough air, while the wrinkles are a breeding ground for bacteria). Together, the two Times images were something of a road map: Here’s the dog we have; here’s the dog we need to get to.

Excerpt, as it turns out, we may have missed our shot. A new study in the journal Canine Genetics and Epidemiology analyzed the genes of 102 bulldogs from the U.S., concluding that we’ve now bred out most of their genetic diversity. Which means that if, hypothetically, vets and breeders could sway public opinion to make the healthier dog more desirable, they still wouldn’t have a way to get the bulldog from where it is now to where it ought to be.

“Improving health through genetic manipulations presumes that enough diversity still exists to improve the breed from within,” lead study author Niels Pedersen, a veterinary researcher at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement, but “we found that little genetic ‘wiggle room’ still exists in the breed to make additional genetic changes.”

Some breeders, the study authors noted, have begin crossing the English bulldog with similar breeds to create healthier hybrids — a practice that other breeders have resisted, arguing that the practice represents an existential threat to “true” English bulldogs. The problem with that, though, is that the status quo kind of does, too.