Written by Dr. Marcelle Landestoy, DVM
The Bulldog is an iconic breed, with its distinctive baby-like face and low slung body.
Many organizations have taken the Bulldog’s image as a symbol of courage and tenacity.
However, the very popularity of the uniquely charismatic-faced Bulldog may be behind its ill-health.
Common Bulldog health issues include brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome and other upper respiratory disorders. Bulldogs are prone to eye conditions, hip dysplasia, and skin conditions such as skin fold dermatitis. Overall, a Bulldogs’ genetic ill-health has shortened their life expectancy.
Using my experience as a veterinary doctor, I’ve compiled the following list of common Bulldog health issues, their symptoms, how they’re diagnosed, and the best course of action.
Bulldog Health Issues Throughout History
The popularity of the brachycephalic breeds or (short-headed breeds) is on the increase worldwide and has caused a growing concern over the breed’s poor health.
The Bulldog’s distinctive physical features’ popularity seems to take preferences over the substantial health risks evident in the bulldog breed.
The Bulldog breed’s first mention was as early as 1662, where the more fierce cousins of our modern Bulldog took part in the sadistic ritual of Bull-Baiting.
The dogs attacked a tethered Bull, and the first dog to bring the bull down by its nose was hailed the victor.
Multiple dogs were injured and gored in the process of Bull Baiting. The breed needed courage and stamina for its intended purpose.
Early breeders ensured the Bulldog was strong and ferocious with a large head and jaws and muscular body for their purpose.
Unlike modern bulldogs, early Bulldogs were muscular and highly athletic, which is a sad reflection on the sedentary modern Bulldog and its physiological intolerance for prolonged activity.
When the English abolished the cruel sport of Bull Baiting in 1835, the breed almost fell into non-existence.
However, the public remained loyal to the courageous breed and created a more docile version of the Bulldog for domestic living arrangements.
With this came the alterations in size, shape, and temperament and the shortened nose that we recognize today.
As one of the earliest breeds recognized by the Kennel Club (KC) in 1874, the Bulldog became prey to the tranny of breed standards.
They intensified the breed characteristics regardless of consequences to the breed’s health.
Along with these alterations arose the thick folds of skin on the brow and nose roll, the sagging neck skin, and the pronounced underbite that make the modern Bulldog so unique and expressive.
In 2009, a BBC documentary offered a damning documentary on Kennel Club Breed standard and their effect on breed health.
The damning expose prompted the KC to introduce revised breed standards for the British Bulldog and 209 other dog breeds.
However, due to the breed’s popularity and the relatively narrow gene pool, any dramatic changes in Bulldog confirmation and health are unlikely.
The hundreds of years of interbreeding this much-beloved breed has not been kind to the dogs at all.
The health issues associated with the breed are not only a recent issue.
There is archival evidence as far back as a century ago by judges concerned with exaggerated confirmations that made the breed a ‘caricature’ of its Bull Baiting ancestors.
The public also raised concerns about the breed’s sadly shortened’ life duration as far back as 1900.
The Bulldog is a brachycephalic breed that means ‘short-headed’ and refers to breeds with shortened snouts and flat faces such as the French Bulldog, English Bulldog, and Pugs.
The brachycephalic breeds suffer from associated health issues such as Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome (BAS), common in the Bulldog breed.
Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS)
Abnormalities associated with the brachycephalic Bulldog include four main upper airway abnormalities including:
- An elongated soft palate occurs where the elongated soft palate intrudes into the airway and interferes with breathing.
- Stenotic Nares are malformed and narrowed nostrils and collapse inward when inhaling, making it difficult for the dog to breathe through its nose.
- Everted Laryngeal Saccules occurs when tissue in the airway in front of the vocal cords becomes pulled into the windpipe and obstructs airflow.
- A hypoplastic trachea is a narrowed windpipe that also affects breathing in the brachycephalic Bulldog.
BOAS has an impact on almost every aspect of a Bulldog’s life, including sleep.
Bulldogs with BOAS often suffer from sleep apnea, which affects deep rest by waking the dog repeatedly, much as in humans.
The symptoms of BOAS are a combination of signs including:
- Noisy breathing is a characteristic of soft palate elongation and significantly affects the Bulldog’s inspiration or inward breath
- Excessive snoring
- Gagging and vomiting actions, particularly when swallowing
- Exercise intolerance and cyanosis (blue tongue or gums through oxygen deprivation)
- They may collapse in extreme heat or humidity or after overactivity
- Sleeping on their backs alleviates the soft palate obstruction somewhat so that it may be a sign of BOAS.
If your Bulldog exhibits the above symptoms, you must consult a qualified veterinarian as soon as possible.
While a vet can quickly diagnose stenotic flares on physical examination, they may only conduct the definitive diagnosis of the elongated soft palate and everted laryngeal saccules under anesthetic.
Because brachycephalic breeds have thickened tongues, it is difficult to view the larynx and associated disorders clearly.
Once under anesthetic, the vet can view the soft palate and check for laryngeal collapse and the blue-gray soft tissue of laryngeal saccules as the cause for your pet’s condition.
A vet will often perform a CT scan of the dog’s head to view their nasal cavities and soft palate and perform X-rays to determine concurrent or secondary diseases such as aspiration pneumonia or Hiatal hernias.
If your pet exhibits distress or your vet thinks these problems will worsen over time and become life-threatening, they’ll recommend a staphylectomy or soft palate resection.
The surgeon conducts staphylectomy with a scalpel, scissors, or C02 laser.
They stretch the palate and remove the excess tissue under general anesthetic.
If the surgeon finds the laryngeal saccules everted, your vet may remove them simultaneously and correct stenotic nares if present.
Eye problems and eyelid conditions are common ailments in the Bulldog breed.
The distinctive flattened features of the Bulldog result in shallow eye sockets, which can lead to a host of eye problems and even blindness.
Dry eye, corneal ulcers, eyelid abnormalities, and even early onset cataracts are common complaints in this unlucky breed.
The flatness of the Bulldog’s face causes what is known as ‘brachycephalic ocular disease’ due to the head and eye socket shape.
Many of the eye conditions are curable if caught early enough, which is why it is imperative to visit a veterinarian if your Bulldog exhibits any of the following symptoms.
Bulldogs will exhibit a variety of symptoms depending on their particular eye condition.
Signs to look out for in your Bulldog are:
- Pawing and rubbing at the eyes
- Signs of pain
- Dry or red eyes
- Excessive tearing or discharge from the eyes
- Visible third eyelid
- Cloudiness in the eyes.
Dry Eye or Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca (KCS)
Dry Eye or Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca is a treatable eye condition commonly found in Bulldogs.
The condition is due to the diminishing production of aqueous fluid, a vital component of tears.
Without tears, the eye cannot function to clear irritants and pollutants in the eye leading to dryness, inflammation, and irritation.
Symptoms and Treatment
Dry eye commonly manifests itself as redness of the eye and excessive blinking and rubbing actions.
Your vet will test for the moisture level in your dog’s tear glands as well as the presence of corneal ulcers.
Eye drops and a topical treatment to increase tear production are the typical remedies.
Cherry Eye or Glandular Hypertrophy
Although cherry eyes may look alarming, it is a treatable complaint caused by the third eyelid gland’s enlargement and prolapse.
When the third eyelid gland becomes swollen and red, it may cover part of your dog’s eye.
These glands are essential for your dog’s eye health and should be treated promptly by a veterinarian.
Although the gland may correct itself on its own after a course of medication and steroids, alternatively, your vet may suggest surgery to restore the affected gland to its proper place.
Particularly severe cases may recur after surgery, and owm=ners should abstain from breeding dogs with this condition.
Entropion is a condition of the eyelids where they rotate inwards and causes hairs of the eyelid to rub the cornea of the eye.
This condition results in pain, corneal ulcers, and perorations.
Entropion is a common disorder in the Bulldog breed with its characteristic face folds.
Owners should treat this condition to prevent further complications to the eye and vision.
Symptoms and Treatment
Many flat-faced dogs, such as the Bulldog with medial entropion, will not exhibit symptoms. The condition occurs in dogs under a year of age.
However, they may exhibit symptoms such as excessive tearing or discharge from the eye.
Treatment is usually surgical correction. A surgeon will remove a section of the eyelid to reverse the inward rolling, followed by minor corrective surgery.
The surgery is generally broken into two procedures to ensure that they do not over-correct the entropion.
A distichia is an extra eyelash that grows from the eyelid through the meibomian gland’s duct or alongside the gland.
These hairs irritate the eye and cause inflammation, discharge, and pain, leading to ulceration.
This condition may be painful and cause distress to your pet and should be checked by a professional.
Symptoms and Treatment
Symptoms include inflammation and discharge, and you Bulldog may paw or rub at their eyes.
Depending on the severity of the condition, your vet may recommend surgery.
If only one or two distachiae are present, the surgeon may remove the eyelid’s affected portion.
If multiple distichiae are present, the surgeon may use:
- Cryosurgery (freezing)
- Or a laser to destroy the follicles.
Bulldogs are often born with normal hips, but their genetic makeup causes the soft tissue around their joints to develop abnormally.
Hip dysplasia’s primary cause is abnormal joint structure and laxity of connective tissue muscles and ligaments that typically support the dog’s hip joints.
As the disease progresses, the hip and ball joint’s articular surfaces lose proper contact with each other—this separation within the joint changes the articular surfaces’ size and shape.
When the socket and ball fit irregularly, they begin to rub and grind instead of moving smoothly.
This condition may result in joint deterioration over time and eventual loss of joint function.
Although this is a genetic condition, certain behaviors may magnify the genetic predisposition, such as:
- Excessive weight
- Improper exercise.
Hip dysplasia is often painful, and your dog will exhibit various symptoms if they have this condition.
Dogs as young as four months old may exhibit hip dysplasia symptoms. In contrast, others develop the condition later in their lives as they age.
The symptoms vary according to the severity of the disease and the length of the condition. These symptoms include:
- Decreased activity levels
- Reluctance to run or climb stairs’
- Difficulty getting up from a lying position
- Decreased range of motion
- Bunny hopping or limping behaviors
- Narrowed hind leg stance
- Hind leg lameness
- Loss of thigh muscle
- Increased upper-body mass.
If you suspect your Bulldog has hip dysplasia, you should consult a vet as soon as possible.
The primary examination will be a manipulation test of your dog’s hind legs to test for the joint’s looseness.
The vet will determine if there is stiffness, grinding, pain, or reduced motion indicative of dysplasia.
The examination will typically include blood work because the inflammation caused by the disease will be evident in the blood count.
Your vet may determine your dog’s health and symptoms as well as their genetic histories.
They will then radiograph or X-Ray the joint to assess the severity of the condition.
Depending on the severity of the condition, your vet may suggest lifestyle modifications or the need for surgery.
Your vet may recommend a non-surgical approach such as:
- Weight loss programs
- Exercise limitations
- Joint supplements
- Joint supplements
- Joint fluid modifiers.
The three most common surgical strategies include:
The distinguishing folds on a Bulldog’s skin make them prone to skin conditions due to chaffing, heat, and moisture.
If your Bulldog is prone to environmental and food allergies, it magnifies the chances of conditions in the folded areas of their skin, including:
- Facial Folds
- Tail folds
- Peri-vulvar folds’
- Armpit areas.
Skin Fold Dermatitis (Intertrigo)
Bulldog folds are notorious for outbreaks of skin fold dermatitis. Harmful bacteria such as staph and yeast thrive in the moist folded areas of your dog’s skin.
The warm, humid regions promote the overgrowth of surface microbes.
Their resulting toxins and breakdown products cause irritation and inflammation.
Eventually, the maceration of the skin causes microbial penetration to deeper epidermal and dermal areas causing infection.
General allergic reactions to food, pollen, dust mites, and fleas enhance the susceptibility of your Bulldog’s folded skin to infections.
Your Bulldog may exhibit the following symptoms when experiencing dermatitis, and you should consult a vet as the condition may become more severe if left unaddressed:
- Excessive itching
- Yeasty odor
- Greasy skin
- Redness and toughened skin areas.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your vet will require a complete medical history to ascertain the pattern of your pet’s allergies.
They will typically then perform tests on skin samples from the affected areas to determine the cause of dermatitis.
The vet may prescribe antibiotics if bacteria and antifungal treatments cause the infection if the reaction is yeast-based.
The treatment rests heavily on the type of skin condition your dog has and the primary causes of the skin reaction.
If the condition is severe, your vet may need to conduct intradermal allergy tests for dogs to determine the cause of the skin fold dermatitis.
Alternatively, they may suggest a course of:
- Hyposensitisation therapy which they inject small amounts of your dog’s allergies over several months to lessen symptoms
- Immunomodulatory medications in either pill or injection form in conjunction with antibacterial or antifungal medication.
Treatment includes prevention strategies for owners, such as regular cleaning and drying of the areas of folded skin and specialized prescription shampoos and topical treatments to alleviate the symptoms.
Regular cleaning ensures that the site remains free from potential microbial activities that lead to dermatitis conditions.
It seems such a sad fate for such a loved and affectionate breed such as the Bulldog to have such health issues.
On average, brachycephalic breeds lifespan is four years less than an average dog.
That shortened lifespan may be fraught with painful conditions.
The Journal of Canine Genetics and Epidemiology found that inbreeding has dramatically narrowed the breed’s genetic pool to the extent that rescuing this breed from ill-health is in doubt.
Until breeders take steps to correct this, people may increasingly question whether breeding the Bulldog is not a form of animal cruelty.
- Science Daily: Why Flat-Faced Dogs Remain Popular Despite Health Problems
- Wikipedia: Bulldog
- Wikipedia: Pedigree Dogs Exposed
- Canine Medicine and Genetics: A Genetic Assessment of the English Bulldog
- NCBI: Disorders of Bulldogs under primary veterinary care in the UK in 2013
- Wikipedia: Cephalic Index
- ACVS: Brachycephalic Syndrome
- Wikipedia: Orthopaedic Foundation for Animals
- Bluecross: Cherry Eye in Dogs
- VCA Hospitals: Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca
- VCA Hospitals: Entropion
- VCA Hospitals: Distichia or Distichiasis in Dogs
- Wikipedia: Meibomian Gland
- Dispomed: Dog Allergy Testing
- Today’s Veterinary Practice: Skin Fold Dermatitis (Intertrigo) in Dogs
- AKC Canine Health Foundation: Hyposensitizing Dogs to Atopic Dermatitis
- PetMD: New Drugs for Allergies in Dogs
- PetMD: Canine Atopic Dermatitis
Veterinary Hospital Director at UCE
Dr. Marcelle is a general veterinarian with a Small Animal Medicine Specialty | Director of the UCE School of Veterinary Medicine | Certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society