Documentary. Comedian, actress and dog lover Catherine Tate investigates the serious health problems affecting the British bulldog and what can be done to save it.
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Ooh, come to me, ooh, come to me!
The British bulldog.
A national icon.
And possibly the most irresistible puppy in the world.
Well, I mean, I can totally see why people lose...
..lose all common sense when they're around these puppies
because they're the cutest things I've ever seen.
All right, I'm trying to big you up, don't do that!
As a nation, we're bonkers about bulldogs.
Over the last 15 years, their numbers have quadrupled.
Adoring owners love to capture the spirit of the bulldog
and share clips online.
But the British bulldog is plagued by health defects.
Two years ago, shocking new research caused an international controversy.
Scientists say it could die out
if it isn't crossed with other types of dog to avoid health problems.
At the start of this year, British vets launched
a national campaign urging dog buyers to avoid flat-faced breeds.
From breathing difficulties to spinal disease,
the bulldog is in crisis.
It's a loved, iconic breed, but in its current form,
it isn't fit for life.
I'm Catherine Tate.
I'm a dog owner and an animal lover.
I'm also passionate about animal welfare.
Are you a beautiful girl?
You'll come home with me?
I want to find out what's gone wrong with the British bulldog
and what we can do to save it.
I'll meet some of the world's leading experts
battling to fix the breed.
A lot of people think a snorting bulldog is normal for the breed.
It isn't. This is a serious disease.
I'll meet the breeders fighting to preserve the dog they love.
We all aim to breed the perfect bulldog,
but I also breed for health as well.
And I'll ask the Kennel Club,
the leading authority in charge of pedigree dogs,
whether they're doing enough.
I'm seeing dogs that have had to have operations
to help them breathe.
Of course, no-one would ever try and defend that.
So can we save the British bulldog or is it already too late?
If Britain is a nation of dog lovers,
I completely fulfil the stereotype.
Come on, Twinks.
In fact, one of my early TV characters was a dog trainer.
So, it's just a gentle trot and stay close.
Don't forget the praise, you'll get nowhere without the praise.
OK, everyone, that's our 90 minutes.
And if we keep up this standard, in a few weeks,
I can see myself letting some of you bring your dogs.
My dog is a cross between a Chihuahua and a Brussels griffon.
And owning her has changed my life.
This is Twinkle. I love her so much.
She came along and now I am so animal-centric.
I think quite a lot of people worry about me
because I certainly like animals and dogs much more than people.
And I don't think I'm the only one.
Come on, Twinks.
We Brits adore our dogs
and one of our top ten favourite breeds is the bulldog.
The annual bulldog picnic in Chichester is an occasion
for bulldog lovers from all over Britain to get together
and share their passion for the breed.
# And they all go hand in hand
# Hand in hand through their parklife... #
Every September, around 300 dogs and their owners gather for a day
of doggy bonding, dog shows...
..and some pretty impressive dressing up.
But it's the bulldog's personality that wins the day.
My name's Sarah, this is Alfie. He's the most loving dog going.
He likes cuddles, he's just absolutely brilliant.
This is Reg and he's five and a half.
You'd never think that an animal could bring so much love
and happiness to a family.
His name's Duke and he's really friendly.
He is a lovable dog.
You know, you see the old pictures,
you see Winston Churchill with a bulldog.
It's just British, it's just part of our heritage, I think.
The bulldog has been a British icon for over 200 years,
renowned for its courage and fighting spirit.
During World War II, the bulldog's bravery, tenacity
and resilience were celebrated as ideals of the British character.
They always relate back to Winston Churchill and I think that
Winston Churchill had the bulldog spirit.
He looked like a bulldog
and the amount of bulldogs we get through called Winston
are just unbelievable.
There's no denying we love our bulldogs.
In fact, over the last 15 years, the number of pedigree bulldogs
has quadrupled from around 2,000 a year to nearly 8,000.
But now I'm hearing that the health of the breed
has become a huge concern for vets.
So I want to investigate what's going on.
I've got three articles here.
One is from the BBC News website and the headline says,
"English bulldog health problems prompt cross-breeding call."
If we go to the Times...
.."Bulldogs have little chance of a healthy life."
And the Independent which says, "English bulldogs now so inbred,
"their appalling health problems will not improve."
So, they are not headlines that sit on the fence.
These news stories are incredibly worrying.
They paint a picture of a breed in crisis.
So what are the main health problems affecting many British bulldogs?
To find out, I've come to the Royal Veterinary College
in Potters Bar, one of the leading vet schools in the UK,
to meet Professor Dan Brockman.
-Hello, are you Dan?
-I am indeed, would you like to come this way?
Dan is a specialist at the UK's first clinic dedicated to
flat-faced dogs like bulldogs, known as the brachycephalic breeds.
One of the key problems that these dogs face
is their ability to breathe.
Brachycephaly means short head.
-But if you look at this picture,
this is a CT of a brachycephalic dog and this is a short nose
and this is a CT of a much longer-nosed dog,
probably a German shepherd or something like that.
This structure here is the soft palate.
Dan explains the soft palate is the tissue at the back of the roof of the mouth.
And in these brachycephalic dogs, the soft palate is incredibly thick
in comparison to the soft palate in a non-brachycephalic dog.
And what's caused that?
It's just all of that tissue trying to cram into a smaller space.
So, it's just squashed...?
It's all squashed in.
Over the past 150 years, breeders have bred for
an ever flatter muzzle, squashing the soft tissue inside.
This is the nostril.
Now, a normal dog should have a very wide open space here,
but you can see this nostril collapses down.
The nostrils are one of the highest causes of the resistance to airflow.
They just can't breathe, they can't get their breath.
-It must be the most frightening experience.
-And that's what these dogs experience.
So, what are the other issues that the bulldog presents with?
Well, the skin folds on the face,
so this fold of skin almost completely covers the nose.
And in these little folds, here,
there's a raging bacterial infection already.
The eye is in here somewhere.
-And all those folds of skin, if they roll all the way round,
hair is rubbing directly onto the eye.
They get chronic ear infections and their leg shapes are unusual
and they're shorter and they're often quite bent.
So, they may be predisposed
to certain types of degenerative joint disease as well.
They are inherently unhealthy.
The bulldog's body shape is also the reason
that 86% of the breed has to give birth by Caesarean section.
So, how did the bulldog get to this point?
Well, that's an interesting question,
and clearly bulldogs originally
were bred for a purpose, because they were bull-fighting dogs.
But what happened over the years was
that the function that these dogs were really bred for
no longer became important.
-But people said, "Well, I quite like the look of that."
For some reason, people thought
that the shorter and shorter the nose got,
the cuter the animals became.
And that's really created a huge number of knock-on effects.
It's a purely man-made disease.
I find it shocking how humans have played such a big role
in the way the bulldog looks
and how we're the cause of so many of its health problems.
I want to find out more about how the dog's looks
have changed over the years.
I'm looking at a picture of the original bulldog
which is from around about 1817.
And you know, much, much different formation of dog.
It's longer, it's leaner,
its head and neck are in proportion, its got a muzzle,
it's fit and athletic.
And then we go to the dog that we call the bulldog today.
And it's a flat face, wrinkles around the forehead, much shorter.
Squat, massive shoulders.
So, the contrast in the physical differences is stark.
The pedigree bulldog of today has a written description of how it should look.
This is known as the breed standard.
"Head fairly large in proportion to size, but at no point so much in excess
"of others as to destroy the general symmetry
"or make the dog appear deformed.
"Face relatively short, muzzle broad, blunt,
"and inclined upward, though not excessively so.
"Dogs showing respiratory distress highly undesirable."
So, this all sounds quite moderate and reasonable.
But, from what I'm hearing and from what I'm reading,
there's an awful lot of dogs out there that don't conform
to this description. So, I want to know what's going on.
Despite what it says about the bulldog in the breed standard,
one of the dog's major health problems is its poor breathing.
So, I'm heading to the Cambridge University Vet Hospital to meet
leading soft tissue surgeon, Jane Ladlow, who treats many bulldogs.
Jane and her colleague, Nai-Chieh Liu, are conducting
research into the bulldog breathing disease known as
brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, or BOAS.
As part of their research, they use a special chamber
to measure bulldogs' breathing ability
with greater accuracy than ever before.
This helps them to diagnose dogs affected with BOAS
and treat them more effectively.
So, what exactly is BOAS?
So, BOAS is when you've got too much soft tissue
at the back of your throat or in your nose,
so in the bulldog it's particularly a long, thick, soft palate.
And this soft palate gets sucked into the airway and the voice box
when the animal breathes and it causes an obstruction.
How many dogs overall are affected by BOAS?
It's just under 50%.
And we think that's probably relatively typical
of the population at large.
Today, Jane is seeing Laura and her bulldog, Betsy.
Betsy suffers from BOAS and is here for a pre-surgery consultation.
-This is Catherine.
-Hi, nice to meet you.
-And this is Betsy.
-Oh, how lovely.
Betsy is a British bulldog
with some of another bulldog breed in her known as Old Tyme.
I think you've particularly unlucky as Betsy may have a little bit
of Old Tyme in her, but she's presenting very much
-with the classical presentation of the bulldog.
So, you have come because you're worried about the fact she's making
a lot of noise when she's breathing sometimes, particularly on exercise?
Yeah, the hotter the weather, the louder it is.
And then, when she's running, it's like something closes in her throat,
-so she ends up, like, throwing up foam.
So, it's those kind of things with her,
especially with the hot weather.
What's she's like when she's sleeping?
She snores a lot, continuously.
She does stop breathing, I think, every now and then
for a short period of time
because the snoring stops and then it starts again.
Is that not really scary?
Yeah, it is a little bit, because I don't know why she's doing it.
-I've brought some home footage with me
just to show you her breathing at her worst
cos now she's quite cool and relaxed.
But this is...
So, that's that after...
-It sounds like a monster, doesn't it?
Is that you?
It must really freak you out. That would really freak me out.
-Yeah, it makes you feel really upset.
Laura tells me it doesn't take much exercise
for Betsy to get into this state.
I mean, that's severely limiting, isn't it, in terms of a dog?
So, we've got Betsy as our most severe grade, I'm afraid.
And we think that she is actually quite severely affected because
the skull is shortened but the soft tissues are still quite long.
And in bulldogs, it is usually a thick and long soft palate.
And that's very much what she sounds like to me.
Jane has decided that Betsy needs surgery to trim the excess tissue
at the back of her throat.
So if we trim that soft palate
and stop it being sucked into her voice box when she's breathing,
I think you will notice quite an improvement with her.
And what are you hoping to achieve after the surgery?
How will it improve her life?
So, we're never going to get her to an athletic kind of dog,
unfortunately, because she does have these issues
so we're really looking for quality of life.
So, a dog that can go out and exercise without becoming
too distressed or having that kind of noise.
-Oh! Beautiful girl.
We're going to get you breathing better.
You can walk and play!
I'll be back to observe Betsy's surgery,
which hopefully will improve her quality of life.
But, for some bulldogs, surgery isn't enough.
The average life expectancy for British dogs is 12 years.
For bulldogs, it's just eight.
Many don't even make it that far.
I've come to East Sussex to meet Donna, a former bulldog owner.
-Come on in.
Donna's bulldog, Frank, died when he was just three years old.
Was Frank your first bulldog?
He was my first bulldog.
Aw, look at him.
He was brilliant with the grandchildren really.
Temperament was lovely, with everybody, with other dogs.
What age was he when he had his first operation?
Probably about five months old
when he had his soft palate and his nose done.
Then he had ear infections.
I guess the last straw for him and the biggest thing
-was the cruciate ligaments.
-That's in the knee, is it?
Yeah, his knees kept dislocating.
And, um, so he couldn't go upstairs.
His life was really restricted and really limited in what he could do.
What happened before he died?
-Well, he had to have the cruciate ligament surgery.
He came through the GA and I was phoned to say, "Yeah, he's fine."
GA, general anaesthetic?
Yeah, and I got a phone call about three and they said,
"He's having trouble breathing, we're not sure why."
And his lungs just couldn't cope, really struggling.
And she just said, "What do you want us to do, during the night,
"should anything happen?" And I said, "Just do what's best for him.
"Whatever that may be."
Oh, I'm so sorry for you.
-That's all right.
-That's really hard.
That's terrible, it's really hard.
Because, I mean, you know, losing any pet is a terrible experience.
Now, presumably, your vet bills were quite high, were they?
They were very high.
It did get ridiculous, to be honest,
because the cruciate ligament surgery was £3,000 per leg.
I think the first leg, about £800 of that was paid by the insurance,
but then I paid the rest.
And I paid the rest on the second leg.
So in his three years of life,
how much in total do you think you spent on vet bills?
I'd probably say, as an estimate, between £8,000 and 10,000.
Gosh, that's a lot, isn't it?
And there was a worry of...
-How will you continue to pay?
-That's right, yeah.
Where is this going to go? And you continue to do what you can do...
-..because, you know, they are a member of your family, they are.
-Yeah, of course.
-You took on that dog,
you took responsibility of that dog.
What would you say to people considering buying a bulldog?
I personally would not buy another bulldog
and I think one of the reasons I decided to talk to you today
was to make people more aware,
and if it does make one person think about the puppy that they're buying,
and asking the right questions, you know,
that's all I want to achieve, really.
Back at Cambridge, it's the day of Betsy's surgery.
First, Jane Ladlow and her team do a scan
of the inside of Betsy's nose and throat...
..then it's through to the operating theatre.
The surgery will involve cutting away
a section of Betsy's soft palate to help her breathe.
Before the surgery begins,
the tissue at the back of her mouth is so large,
it's difficult to see her windpipe.
When you do the soft palate, is it a case of just taking off
some of the length or do you have to reconstruct it?
So, we take off length, but we also take off thickness as well
because these palates are excessively thick.
So we strip out some of the muscle and some of the soft tissue,
but the reconstruction we're doing is really to thin the soft palate.
So now what I'm going to do is come up and cut the soft palate
right at the front part of the tonsil.
I'm going all the way down the side.
It's a really big chunk of tissue I'm going to take out of Betsy.
She has a very, very thick and soft palate.
And that's the size of the tissue that we've just taken out
of this dog, out of Betsy.
-It's quite considerable, isn't it?
-It is a considerable amount
of tissue to have the back of your throat.
-It is in excess. Yes.
OK, Catherine, if you want to have a look,
so that's how we're going to leave the palate.
Pretty short in comparison to where we were.
Gosh, that's a big difference, isn't it?
It is a bit difference, actually.
-It's a big chunk of tissue we took out of Betsy.
By cutting away this amount of tissue,
Jane tells me more air will reach Betsy's lungs,
and she'll find breathing easier.
But Betsy's operation is not over just yet.
Next, Jane is going to make her nostrils wider
so she can breathe through her nose more easily.
So I'm taking out the bit called the nare fold, which is just behind
the nostril, and is quite a chunky bit of tissue.
And by removing that, we take out a little bit of the obstruction
at the front of the nostrils.
The question is, do they look about right, what do you reckon, guys?
Do you think they look about right?
I can't believe that dogs as young as Betsy
need invasive operations like this, just to be able breathe.
Right, we're finished, thank you very much for that.
Beautiful girl you are.
Despite the fact that this surgery can cost up to £3,000,
it's becoming more and more commonplace.
Is there a danger that some people out there are going to,
kind of, normalise this kind of procedure.
Just think it's par for the course of having a bulldog,
that they just have to have a little nip and tuck,
and then the dog will be better?
We see a lot of people that don't recognise that the airway noises are abnormal.
They think hearing a snorting bulldog is normal for the breed.
It isn't. Or it shouldn't be.
This is a serious disease, it carries risks,
and it's sad to think that you have to do this routinely on dogs
to make them, you know, have a quality of life that's acceptable.
Presumably this isn't a long-term fix for the breed...
No, this is not a long-term fix for the breed.
I enjoy doing this kind of surgery,
but if it gets to the stage where I see one of these a year,
as opposed to four or five a week, I would be delighted.
We're improving them, but we are not totally fixing them, because,
unfortunately, when the anatomy is so obstructed, you can help,
but you can't completely sort things out.
I mean, I find it very difficult to not be affected
when I see bulldogs undergoing surgery.
I just find it difficult to understand how we can,
in all consciousness, go, "Yeah, I mean, it's all right."
I think that is, kind of, what is happening,
we're just allowing it to happen.
And, you know, I don't mean to demonise people who love bulldogs,
because the vast majority of people care deeply
and would not want harm on any animal,
but I just don't think there's a level of awareness yet
that has infiltrated the public, because...
..clearly, the dogs are suffering.
We as humans have to start putting the dogs first.
And I don't think we are.
But despite these problems, there are people out there
who are doing their best to save the British bulldog.
Right now, breeders don't have to do any health tests on their bulldogs
before they breed them.
There are no regulations to prevent unhealthy dogs
passing on their problems to their offspring.
I've come to Wolverhampton to meet two show breeders
who are working hard to change that.
Lieza Handley and Vicky Collins-Nattrass
run the Health Committee of the Bulldog Breed Council.
Hello, are you Vicky?
Nice to meet you.
They have launched their own health testing scheme
which awards bulldogs a bronze, silver or gold certificate
based on the quality of their health.
-So, where are the dogs?
Lieza, Vicky and their friend, Lorraine, try to breed healthy dogs,
that still match the Kennel Club's breed standard.
They're keen to show me
how their testing scheme is improving their dogs' health.
-And who's this? Hello.
-This is Piper, she is eight-years-old.
She's a beautiful girl.
She's also a champion.
She passed the vet checks to become a champion in 2012.
A champion in the show ring or...
-..or from health standards?
-The show ring.
-The show ring.
-So this is...
-They can move, can't they, for a big unit?!
These dogs are part of Lieza's ongoing breeding programme
to improve the bulldog's health.
If you didn't know, though, the noise they're making, you'd think...
-..I'm in trouble.
-That's what they do.
Because these are eight and ten years old,
these are part of the work in progress that we're doing, aren't they?
You'll see the difference in the young dog.
Oh, look at this one. Who's that?
Henny's nearly three.
Give it to me.
So this is a really playful, active dog.
I don't think I've ever seen a bulldog move like this.
He loves these toys.
What have you got?
He's a French champion, he's also took part in our health scheme.
And he's at gold.
So, as show judges, because you're both show judges, aren't you?
So what is it you're looking for?
We all go for as close to breed standard as possible,
but not only that, but also health as well.
If we look at his eyes, he's got beautiful round, dark eyes.
He's got a true-fitting mouth, he's got lovely nostrils,
and if you can see, his roll isn't impeding on his eyes,
or his nostrils.
He's got very little work in his head,
so just that, straightaway, is good.
His coat and his skin is in absolute perfect condition,
short and close to the body.
If you look at his tail, his tail is free, straight, and he can wag it.
And you look at his movement when he's walking normal,
there's no lameness, or anything in there at all.
So as far as the health scheme goes, he's a very handsome,
active and healthy dog.
Get the ginger ones out there!
-Oh, my God!
He doesn't even like talking about being ginger!
He's made a run for it.
See what happens?
-This is Margot.
-This is a baby one!
She's 15 weeks.
Oh, my gosh!
Are you a beautiful girl?
Want to come home with me?
Catherine, you can't have that one!
You've got a lovely nostril.
Margot, you've got a cracking nostril.
Lieza and Vicky hope their health certificate scheme will be adopted
by bulldog breeders across the country.
So you're hopeful that, within the gene pool,
we could see a greater number of healthier dogs,
-just if they were bred correctly.
-With more knowledge
so that people are aware and don't breed bad breathers together.
That's the main thing.
That would make a big difference.
It's like me, with my breeding programme, you breed for the health.
Yeah. Not for the looks.
You do breed for the look, because we breed to our breed standard,
and our breed standard, unfortunately,
is the Bible for a lot of pedigree dog breeders.
You all aim to breed the perfect bulldog.
And every time I breed a litter, that's what I breed,
but I also breed for health as well.
It sounds to me, as a layperson, that the health certificate is
a very good step towards getting all bulldogs
to be as healthy as your dogs.
Yes, this is what we hope.
We're hoping, we're working towards.
Is this scheme mandatory?
It would be good if it was, wouldn't it?
The only way that health testing bulldogs before breeding
would be able to put in place would be if the Kennel Club
wouldn't register anything unless it was accompanied
by a certificate to say that the dogs were gold level,
silver level, or whatever.
I think how we have it, really,
is as far as we can take it with the regulation.
The health certificate is a useful tool for any bulldog buyer
to find out the health status of their puppy's parents.
I'm on my way to the Kennel Club, the body which oversees
the health and welfare of pedigree dogs in the UK.
It produces the breed standards
which says what a pedigree bulldog should look like.
Bill Lambert is the Kennel Club's health and breeder services manager.
What health tests are mandatory for registered bulldogs?
We don't have health tests that are mandatory
for the bulldog at the moment.
And the reason for that is simply that if we brought in
mandatory testing, it would simply force people away from registering
with the Kennel Club. We have no mandatory powers.
We have no legislative powers, so we have to try and keep people with us.
And therefore, we do things by encouragement and persuasion,
rather than by force.
But I'm seeing dogs that have had to have operations
to help them breathe, which is...
-Of course, no-one would ever try and defend that.
You do have to consider, obviously, the health of the dogs,
that's got to be paramount,
but you have to look at the temperament of the dogs.
Of course we want dogs to look like we want them to look,
so it's a balancing act for breeders.
Just to pick up on something you said about we want the dogs
to look like we want them to look, that's a very human, kind of,
selfish driven thing.
I mean, should we not come much further on the health of the dogs
than we should on our own desires?
Of course we should, but you also need to be aware that the work that
we do, we influence around about 30% of the bulldogs, for example,
bred in the UK.
There's a huge percentage that are born outside our control.
What we've recently experienced in the UK is a sudden growth in a breed,
and the bulldog has grown in popularity immensely.
15 years ago, in the Kennel Club, we registered about 2,000 a year.
Last year we registered almost 8,000.
When you get this mismatch between supply and demand, you, then,
in the middle there, you get this gap effectively,
and the irresponsible breeders,
who don't necessarily know about the breed,
don't care about the breed, will try and fill that gap.
But as the governing body of pedigree dogs,
should the Kennel Club be braver?
Is there any more that the Kennel Club could do,
given that you are the standard to which everyone looks?
We are always looking to see what more we can do for all dogs.
We are the largest contributor to genetic research at the moment,
anyway, so we are doing a lot.
But there's always more we can do. Of course.
There is a danger, if we brought in extremely tight regulations,
and we restricted every aspect of dog shows, of breeding dogs,
we could become a tiny, boutique register,
where our numbers would shrink down to a very small quantity of dogs,
and the influence on all dogs would therefore be diluted and lost.
Personally, I find it disappointing that the leading authority in charge
of pedigree dogs in the UK feels reluctant to bring in stricter regulations.
The Kennel Club say they don't want to alienate people,
so their strategy is to simply encourage breeders to breed healthy dogs,
and fund research that they hope, in time, will produce results.
So now I want to find out if their approach could work.
I've come to Cambridge University where, since 2015,
the Kennel Club has spent £150,000 funding research
into the bulldog breathing disease known as BOAS.
Geneticist David Sagan, is trying to create a DNA test
which will allow breeders to identify
whether puppies are likely to develop the breathing disease.
This could help rule out sick dogs
before they've been used to breed with.
So you could tell much earlier...
-..whether the dog is potentially going to have problems?
Many of our cases don't develop until three, four, five years old.
So those dogs could be used by breeders at the moment,
but with the DNA test, they'd know not to use them,
and this will allow us to eliminate disease more quickly.
Do you have any knowledge of what the breeders will think about this?
Yes, I mean, the breeders have been very concerned that they have a dog
where they like the shape of the dog,
they very much like the personality of the dog.
So although bulldogs have developed from vicious dogs,
nowadays, most bulldogs are sweet as pie, and they're lovely pets.
And they are very concerned that if we start trying to develop tests
that cause radical change, or use strategies that cause
radical change in the genetics of the dog,
then they will lose these nice characteristics.
So what we are looking to do is cause the minimum change
in the appearance and character of the dogs.
We're suggesting that you can move the population quite effectively
away from being severely affected over a few generations.
I think David's research is really encouraging.
If a test for the breathing disease can be rolled out,
and breeders are willing to take it on,
it could have a very positive impact on the breed.
But I know there are experts out there
who think the pace of change is still too slow.
One of them is Doctor Rowena Packer at the Royal Veterinary College.
Rowena has spent the last eight years researching the problems
experienced by flat-faced dogs like bulldogs.
And she believes we need to drastically change our attitude to the breed.
So I've met breeders who are really working hard to improve the bulldog's health.
Is that not a good thing?
It's, of course, a good thing in the sense that they're committed to
breed health, that they are trying to breed with health in mind,
but it's still within this box of, they should still look the same
and that we should only use a small gene pool.
And there's only so far you can actually go with that.
I just feel like the level of ambition as to how much better
they can be is just set that bit too low for me.
Actually, we could be doing far more than just changing small things,
whilst still being committed to this really extreme body shape.
I mean, would you say that there is such a thing as a healthy bulldog?
There is a spectrum.
There's no doubt there are some healthy dogs within that population,
but there needs to be enough.
There's a huge issue within bulldog's genetic diversity,
and if we only pick those few that don't have problems,
then we potentially have a whole time bomb of other genetic problems down the line.
Because of the inbreeding?
Absolutely. There isn't a big gene pool to play with.
Because of the strict rules of keeping dogs breeding
within a small population, and breeding to standards that are,
-fundamentally, unhealthy, we're stuck in the situation.
So what is the solution?
We need to fundamentally change the way the bulldog looks.
It's a loved, iconic breed, but in its current form,
it isn't fit for life.
It isn't fit for function, it has too many problems.
We need to open up our minds to what a bulldog can look like,
we need to reject the extremes, we need to breed with, primarily,
health in mind. We need to not be selfish,
and prioritise how a dog looks above its long-term health and welfare.
Before meeting Rowena, I was quite hopeful,
but now I'm worried the problem is worse than I thought.
I think where I am at the moment is I'm sort of all over the place.
I'm... I'm wrestling, trying to make sense of both sides.
Because you meet the scientists,
and you meet the doctors who give a very, quite a stark...
..and bleak, and rightly so, unemotional assessment
of where the situation is.
The health of the bulldog is only going to get better
if people stop breeding for looks.
Then you meet the owners, and then you meet the bulldogs.
And then, of course, you fall in love with the bulldogs,
and you see these owners, who are just desperately loving their dogs.
But then, at the same time,
still have this obsession with the way they look.
And that's what I wrestle with.
I don't... I don't...
I don't know how to reconcile it.
Rowena believes the bulldog's problems need radical solutions.
She's advised me to head to Edinburgh to meet a scientist whose
ground-breaking research could offer a breakthrough
in the fight to save the bulldog.
Since the modern bulldog breed was established in 1875,
the bulldog's gene pool has shrunk, as dogs were selectively bred
to exaggerate their short faces, squat bodies and wrinkly skin.
I've come to one of the world's leading centres for the study of
animal genetics, the Roslin Institute.
This is where we take that blood on the slide and it's converted over to DNA.
Geneticist Jeff Schoenebeck's latest research could have a big impact
on the bulldog's future.
Why do bulldogs look the way they do?
It all comes down to genes
and what they're inheriting from their parents.
So it's the flavours of genes, the differences in them,
that give bulldogs a flatter face,
whereas other dogs have a longer face.
The skull, the jaw, the neck bone, the spine bones,
the shoulder blade, the pelvis, these shapes,
they're all derivatives,
they're all things that emerge because of these dogs' genes.
Jeff tells me that, like humans,
dogs inherit copies of genes from each parent.
These carry crucial information that determines different traits.
But occasionally there are faults in these genes
which can cause things to go wrong.
So I'm going to use these coloured blocks to illustrate.
What we discovered is a mutation
that is driving face length shorter and shorter.
And we see every bulldog has two copies of this.
So not only do they have these two genes,
and we can pretend they're here in red,
but they have two copies of the same flavour of gene.
Now that we appreciate that, you know, the flat face puts these dogs
at risk of things, you know, breathing difficulties,
eye trauma and so forth.
If we try to breed away from these two copies of
the gene, well, there's nothing to breed away from.
They're always going to have the same two genes.
So does that mean that we cannot correct
the faults within this breed
from within the breed?
What I would say is that it's going to be an uphill battle,
and the reason is there is no other genetic diversity.
There is no copy of that gene that doesn't have the mutation.
The bulldog, in a way, is locked in now, because the breed pool
is closed, by definition, a bulldog can only be produced
by parents that are bulldogs, grandparents that are bulldogs.
So we're having to deal with what we've got.
So if the current gene pool is potentially too small,
what is the solution?
Well, there's a couple of different solutions that people are considering.
There are groups that are looking at
introducing something that's not a bulldog
and crossing it to a bulldog to bring in some genetic diversity
that wasn't there before with hopes that, maybe,
we can increase the face length a little bit.
What we're talking about is out-crossing these dogs...
That means mating a bulldog with another dog that does not contain
characteristics that are problematic?
Yeah, that's right.
It doesn't have to necessarily be drastic,
but even trickling in some new genetic material,
under a controlled manner, personally,
I don't see the problem with this.
It seems Jeff's research is a crucial piece of the scientific puzzle.
The big stumbling block seems to be the discovery of this mutant gene
that's going to be a massive obstacle, because although...
As I understand it, although, you know, that's not the only thing
that is creating the shorter muzzle,
it's certainly one of the big hitters.
And there doesn't seem any way to breed away from that
within the existing gene pool.
One of the potential solutions to the problem is out-crossing.
But Jeff isn't talking about out-crossing with any old dog.
The British bulldog would need to be carefully matched with dogs
that could provide healthy new genes while preserving as much of
the bulldog's appearance and form as possible.
I'm heading to Essex to meet a woman who breeds, perhaps,
the healthiest of all out-crossed bulldogs, the Leavitt bulldog.
-Hello, are you Jessica?
-Yes. Come in.
-Let me block these guys.
-This is Ruby and Arthur.
Hello, darling. There's a good boy.
Arthur will give you hugs.
Jess, these are Leavitt bulldogs.
-Leavitt bulldogs, yeah.
-What's the origin of the Leavitt breed?
So, basically, they were recreated by David Leavitt, 40 years ago.
He wanted a dog that resembled the old bulldog, the working bulldog.
So they are the result of a British bulldog being out-crossed with...
-A bull mastiff, a bull terrier and an American bulldog.
Can you talk us through the difference between
the British bulldog and the Leavitt?
They are less exaggerated, the muzzle is longer,
they have a full tail, they are bred to move freely.
And we want the dogs to still resemble that type.
-Thank you for the kisses!
-But the emphasis is on the health.
So the key to it is that there's nothing extreme about them.
You know, we want a dog that is functional, that's comfortable,
that is able to do everything a family, you know,
member wants to do with them.
There's no bum wiping, there's no face cleaning...
Are you giving me a facial?
No, the point of them is that... I mean, Ruby's seven,
she's never been to the vet.
Nothing. They're totally different to a Kennel Club bulldog.
Were you ever worried that the temperament of the dog would change,
aside from the health of it, the actual temperament?
They're bred by people that are just so, so careful.
So temperament is a really big deal for me.
So I look for really, you know, placid, gentle family dogs.
Which, generally, in the breed, they are.
What kind of health testing is involved for the Leavitt breeding scheme?
Well, before a dog is bred, they are fully health screened.
So we test all their joints, their elbows, their hips,
we X-ray their spine.
Is this testing compulsory?
-They have to meet a certain standard.
And they're not recognised as Leavitt bulldogs without this level of testing.
So is it pass or fail?
Pass or fail. It's the responsible way to breed dogs.
I can't imagine looking at a dog and going to breed it,
not having a clue of the health of their joints.
And I just can't, because... And then raise a litter of puppies,
looking at them and going, "Oh," and then have families
invested in them and you could just be breeding a dog
that is not healthy.
It's just not going to get better,
unless breeders put their neck on the line.
You know, people don't instantly recognise them as bulldogs,
but I quite like that.
She'll creep up, look.
The creeping paws.
Are you a little baby! Argh!
Ruby! Arthur, come here.
I can just... You know, like kids get like, and you know when you go,
-just don't ask for anything when you go in there...
-And they go...
-Wait till everyone's gone home, and then play.
This is what you get.
For God's sake!
So, I loved Jessica's Leavitt bulldogs.
They're beautiful, super healthy, energetic, athletic dogs.
I worry, though, that from an out-crossing point of view,
they're just not going to be an acceptable alternative.
It may just be a step too far for the devotees of the British bulldog.
So how attached are bulldog owners to the classic bulldog breed?
I've come to the monthly bulldog meet up in Hyde Park
which attracts bulldog lovers from all over London.
I mean, this is bulldog heaven, isn't it?
Hello, darling. Who is this?
-Buster? How old is Buster?
-Oh, so he's a little one.
What made you get a bulldog?
I love the temperament, I love the way they look.
They don't need much walking.
They're couch potatoes.
He'll just lie down.
-Who is this?
-This is Boris.
A popular name, it seems, with bulldogs.
A lot of people say, is it because of Boris Johnson?
-Were you, like, dead set on a bulldog?
-Yeah, I was, yes.
-I don't think we could have another breed now.
-After having a bulldog you can't have another one.
-They are such characters.
-Now I've had a bulldog, that's it.
-So who is this?
-This is Max.
-I am bulldog mad.
The only dog I will have is an English bulldog.
Really? Why was that?
I just love the way they look.
I love the temperament.
And, listen, I know that people say a lot of health problems associated
with bulldogs, but actually,
there are a lot of health problems associated with any dog.
I mean, shall I have a Labrador because they're healthier...
For you, you want a bulldog because it looks like a bulldog?
For me, a bulldog.
My first one was a bulldog, my second one is a bulldog.
And if tomorrow I got another one, it would only be a bulldog.
It seems that, despite the health problems and the cost,
people remain devoted to the British bulldog.
In the last 15 years, their numbers have gone through the roof.
And our love for the bulldog is so great
that advertisers have cottoned on to their popularity.
Looking at the amount of commercials they're in,
you wonder has that made them more desirable.
Lots of car commercials.
Mini Cooper loves the bulldog.
Oi! Pretty girl.
You know, there's tissues,
there's snacks, there's mattresses,
Andy, hold up, bruv. I know you're about to rob this bank,
cos I'm a telepathic bulldog, yeah.
It's so popular.
And you can kind of see why, you know, they're incredibly watchable.
So endearing, and of course,
a lot of their expressions can be interpreted as funny.
You know, they've got human-like qualities, it seems.
The bulldog's downfall may be its endearing cuteness.
The fashion for bulldogs is now so great that British breeders can't
keep up with demand, and the market is being flooded with bulldogs
smuggled in from eastern Europe.
Many of the people who breed them have little regard for their health,
so if puppies are intercepted at the border and are suspected of
being under age, they're sent to quarantine facilities,
like this one run by Julie Adams.
Hello. Hello, beautiful.
So what is the story of these little guys?
So these little guys are Hungarian.
They came in to us at about eight weeks old, so they've grown up here.
And what age are they supposed to be?
The minimum age to be legal to come into the UK would be 15 weeks.
So they're serving seven weeks in quarantine to get them up to the UK
legal standard and protect the rest of the UK animal population
from potential rabies in the area.
And they're being transferred so young
because they're cuter and easier to sell?
Yes, cuter and easier to sell.
What condition were they in?
They were transported in a crate that was very small,
there was no bedding in that crate.
Because they'll have often been bred in very high volume conditions with
other puppies, they will tend to have things like kennel cough
and chest infections, respiratory infections.
On top of the typical neglect suffered by smuggled dogs,
bulldog puppies suffer their own specific health problems.
Cherry eyes are common in the breed anyway, but we find them coming over
-untreated, so they'll have eye infections.
-So you could
get a dog come through quarantine looking like this already?
These were arrivals that we had about three weeks ago.
And, you know, all needing to be treated for infection.
And this is probably one of the worst cases we saw a few months ago,
where the pup had got two cherry eyes and had no vision at all.
So they can be very, very poorly.
So what will happen to these little beautiful boys next?
Frequently, unfortunately, because they're bought
very cheaply in Europe, we find they are abandoned.
So then we do have to work with rescues and agencies
to be able to re-home them back into the UK.
It seems that the bulldog smuggling problem is escalating.
One of the charities that often has to pick up the pieces
from this illegal trade is the Dogs Trust
which cares for smuggled pups before reforming them.
Adam Leavey, one of the managers, explains that bulldogs are now
one of the top four most smuggled breeds.
There's a huge demand for these pups,
and they go for extortionate amounts of money.
And, you know, the small breeds are easier to transport in,
and unfortunately, people are supplying that demand.
Can you talk me through what kind of numbers are involved in purchasing,
and the profits that are coming out of this?
You know, a bulldog can sort of go for anything up to £2,500 for a puppy.
Now, the ones that come in from eastern and central Europe,
you know, they are being bought for £100,
and then transporting a whole load of them across.
So if you're bringing a shipment of them across, and you can, in a car,
in a postal van, you could have £10,000, £15,000 of profit from one journey.
-You know, why smuggle drugs when you can smuggle pups?
-Yeah, of course.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course.
So the puppies that are successfully smuggled in, where do they get sold?
Well, all manner of places, really.
So the classic one at the moment is online.
Because, you know, we are very much part of that generation
where we want something, we go online, we want it now.
We've got to feed that demand.
Pet stores are another one as well.
Do you think these breeders are taking advantage of the fact
that people are not doing their research?
-And they just want a bulldog puppy, don't they?
-And they are, you know, probably unwittingly,
becoming accomplices in this terrible cycle.
You know, people go and they let
their emotions get the better of them,
and as soon as they see a puppy,
you hold a little bulldog puppy up to anyone,
it's just a bundle of joy, really.
And they just go with their heart, you know,
all rationale sort of goes out of their head and they make
an emotional decision, and even if they are thinking,
"Oh, I'm a little concerned about the background of this pup,
"I'm rescuing it from that environment."
-Actually, all they're doing is fuelling that trade.
I'm coming to the end of my journey,
but before I sign off, there is one dog I want to see again.
Back at Cambridge I met Laura whose bulldog, Betsy,
was struggling to breathe.
At the time, I was shocked at how badly Betsy was affected.
Is that you?
It's been five weeks since Betsy's surgery to help her breathe better.
I've arranged to meet her and Laura at their local park.
-Hello, Miss Betsy.
-How is she?
-Yeah, she's really good.
-You're doing so well.
You was asleep when I saw you last.
Yes, you was, you was asleep.
Do you remember?
-How is she doing?
-She's doing really, really well.
Once I let her off the lead, she's a completely different dog.
Really? What's the main differences from before the operation
to after the operation in her, kind of, like, quality of life?
I think the first one has got to be the energy levels.
They are really up, with the running.
The second is the noise.
I think, obviously, you heard her previously, when she got hot, or,
you know, stressed. I can't hear her at all any more.
I have to actually look for her.
And the other is, she just seems brighter in herself.
Her eyes seem brighter, and her whole personality is a little bit
-brighter when she's out and about.
I suppose it's like us, isn't it? If we can't get enough oxygen in,
that will have a massive effect on, you know, energy levels, lethargy,
you know, your mood as well.
So, you know, she's her best self now.
Do you think you'd be more inclined, if you do get another bulldog puppy,
to go to a breeder that health tests?
Yes, definitely. I think I'd do more research.
I'd definitely put more thought into it.
-So you're pleased you had the operation?
-I was there while she had the operation,
it was pretty invasive for her.
-You know, it's a lot for them to go through, isn't it?
-To get to this point.
I don't think it's an easy fix, but I'm glad there's something
out there that helped her breathe,
-but I don't want to have to have gone through that.
Oh, well, she's beautiful.
-We're delighted that everything's worked out.
-Yeah, thank you.
But sorry she had to do it in the first place.
-Are we going to see her in action?
-You certainly can,
-she's very excited about her ball.
-Oh, my goodness.
-Are you ready?
Betsy's story has a happy ending,
but I still find it worrying that we have to put dogs through
such invasive surgery because of the way they've been bred.
Science is trying to find solutions, but in the meantime,
dogs are suffering.
For the bulldog's sake, things do need to change.
And everyone has their part to play in that.
The Kennel Club, the breeders, the advertisers, and we,
the puppy-buying public.
Because unless we start putting their health and wellbeing
above our own desires,
we may well be in danger of loving this dog to extinction.
Britain's most iconic dog is in crisis. Comedian, actress and dog lover Catherine Tate investigates the serious health problems affecting the British bulldog and what can be done to save it.
At the start of 2018, vets launched a national campaign urging prospective dog owners to think twice about buying flat-faced breeds like bulldogs.
Meeting breeders, dog owners and vets Catherine asks what's causing the bulldog's problems, as well as exploring the latest scientific research, which suggests controversial ways to save the breed. She also asks the Kennel Club, the leading authority in charge of pedigree dogs, whether they're doing enough.