By Nina Dragicevic

It’s hard not to love pugs — those faces, those eyes, the snorting and the strut.

The physical attributes of this internationally popular breed seem inseparable from the pug identity itself. Yet, increasingly, some of these traits are being called deformities — or, as described by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), “deleterious inherited disorders.”

Their flat face puts pugs into a group called brachycephalic breeds, which includes bulldogs, shih-tzus and Boston terriers, among others. In 2016, the British Veterinary Association called for people to stop buying brachycephalic dogs in an effort to reduce “animal suffering.” In 2017, Irish vets passed a motion calling for a ban on all advertising using flat-faced animals. And snub noses might not be the only issue with pugs: In 2018, a Swedish study found that roughly a third of pugs can’t walk properly.

In other words, what people may find cute might actually be cruel — and it’s a problem humans have created.

“Most of the breeds that are out there now are man-made,” says Tim Arthur, an Ottawa-based veterinarian who sits on the CVMA council. “Initially, we created breeds of dogs because they were functional — they needed to do a job, so we built a better dog. It ran faster, hunted better, smelled better, it guarded better. Nowadays we make dogs, to a degree, for what they look like.”

‘We need to turn the clock back’

The pug dog is an ancient breed. Through countless generations of selective breeding, Arthur says, pugs and other brachycephalic breeds have had their upper jaw pushed backwards. This one aesthetic preference can produce a cascade of unintended side effects: compressed nasal passages and throats, deep skin folds on the face, and deformed eyelids and tear ducts.

These resulting traits may result in difficulties breathing, chronic skin infections and eye problems — as well as discomfort and pain for the animals, and thousands of dollars in veterinary care. One 2016 study found that almost 70 per cent of pug dogs screened had at least one health disorder.

“However, that’s what the breed looks like,” Arthur says. “So the question becomes: How exaggerated do you want that look to be? That’s where it goes back to breeding and selecting dogs.”

Arthur says a healthier pug is possible — breeding for “less exaggerated” traits means we might be able to keep the pug but reduce the health problems.

“If you went back 40 years and found some pictures of pugs, you would look at it and say, ‘Yeah, it’s a pug.’ But when you compare it to the dogs today, it’s not quite as buggy-eyed, not quite as wrinkled, and its nose isn’t as short. We’ve exaggerated the features and we need to turn the clock back.”

“It can be done,” he says.

Ethical breeding is needed for all purebreeds

Blanche Axton, who runs Pugalug Pug Rescue in Toronto which is featured in CBC the documentary Pugly, doesn’t want the conversation about ethical breeding to focus solely on pugs or other flat-faced breeds. She notes many examples of purebreds and their associated issues — from epilepsy to hip dysplasia to problematic temperaments — and says “any time you shallow out that gene pool, you’re going to have problems.”

“I think it’s an issue across the board about how and why dogs get bred,” Axton says. “We get to the point where we just normalize it. People just accept that border collies are insane, and that Australian shepherds will all be dog reactive, and that Chihuahuas will all be biters. That’s not okay. That should not be the norm.”

Blanche Axton with her pub

Blanche Axton with her pug

Axton says that very few of the pugs she’s encountered in her rescue organization have had respiratory troubles. If she receives a pug rescue and believes it does not breathe well, Axton’s first step is to make it lose weight — obesity, she finds, is the bigger issue for the breed. She keeps her own pugs very lean and active, and her pets do agility and scent work.

“I totally understand why some organizations are waving the red flag about this,” she says. “I just think we should be waving the red flag with this generally, not just with pugs.”

Breeders should prioritize health and temperament over appearance

Arthur and Axton say purebred dogs deserve better: breeders should prioritize health and temperament over appearance; dog shows shouldn’t reward dogs with exaggerated traits associated with health problems; advertisers shouldn’t use deformed pets as ‘cute’ marketing props and buyers should research breeders for ethical and responsible practices.

It would be tragic to lose an ancient breed — beloved by Chinese emperors, British royalty and generations of people around the world — to crippling health disorders that are largely avoidable.

“Their personalities are wonderful,” Arthur says. “They’re great dogs — we just have to get over the exaggerations of them. We made it, we’re responsible for it.”

Watch Pugly on CBC Docs POV.