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Opinion | Norway court ban on breeding bulldogs points up hard moral questions

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The English bulldog is “fierce in appearance, but possessed of affectionate nature,” says Britain’s largest kennel club. The Bulldog Club of America — where the breed is simply called a bulldog — describes the dogs as “excellent family companions.”

But humans, arguably, have not been very good to this particular breed of man’s best friend. Its genes are replete with inbred ills, and the dogs — no matter how well-loved — all too frequently live short, difficult and unhealthy lives. That’s why a Norwegian court recently ordered a halt to further breeding of the dog — and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, too — within that country, saying it amounts to cruelty to animals.

In an era of increased animal rights, this marks an enormous, unprecedented advance. It also raises an uncomfortable question: What is the best way to demonstrate our love for canines? Is it to live with them, treat them like humans, dress them up in Halloween costumes, proclaim them our children and leave money for their care in our wills?

Or is it, at least in some cases, to admit that, as much as we adore a particular breed, it is morally wrong to continue inflicting its host of health problems, and that we need to, as the Norwegian court suggested, turn to “scientifically based cross-breeding” — that is, mating the breed with a different one entirely.

When it comes to the bulldog in particular, the latter appears to be the obvious answer. The English bulldog was used hundreds of years ago for corralling livestock and for bull-baiting, a barbaric practice that was banned in Britain in the 19th century. After that, the fierce fighter was turned into a sedated family pet.

Over the years, selective breeding created the modern bulldog’s distinctive wide-eyed, smooshed-in face. (Modern medical advances played a role, too — the English bulldog is so unnatural, it could almost not exist without Caesarean sections, which occur in more than 86 percent of deliveries of the breed. Their heads will not fit through the mother’s birth canal. )

The technical term for this appearance is “brachycephalic,” a bloodless, scientific word for an extremely painful reality. With their oddly shaped, almost baby-like faces, the dogs suffer extreme sinus difficulties. They are frequently unable to catch a full breath. The extreme inbreeding that resulted in the look leaves it vulnerable to a host of other ills as well. Bulldogs are frequently arthritic, cannot tolerate heat and typically die between the ages of 6 and 8. By comparison, golden retrievers can be expected to live 10 to 12 years. (As for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed with a distinctively small head, it is prone to such ills as heart disease at a young age and hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain.)

Despite their health challenges, dogs with this sort of wide-eyed, squat look are enormously popular. The bulldog was the fifth-most-popular breed in the United States in 2020, the American Kennel Club reports.

These breeds, it seems, fill many needs in modern human life. Dogs with wide, baby-like eyes offer us the illusion of infants. When we gaze at them, they gaze back. Oxytocin — that hormone that binds mother and child — is released. Brachycephalic dogs excel in this role more than many other canine breeds.

Somewhere along the way, according to researchers at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, the flatter-faced canines came to have less peripheral acuity than the typical dog, making it easier to lock eyes with them. No doubt this appeals in our age of tech-dominated loneliness, where many turn to dogs not just for companionship but also to replace missing or unsatisfactory human connections.

These smoosh-faced dogs are also popular among people with sedentary lifestyles. A 2020 survey of repeat-breed dog owners published in the journal Plos One found that the bulldog (as well as the pug and the French bulldog) appealed, in part, because of their lack of vim and vigour. Many of those surveyed wanted what the study authors described as a “’lazy’ low energy dog,” one that didn’t need to be walked often or for long but that got along well with children.

What we desire from beloved animals, it turns out, does not always make for a high-quality canine life. The result, when it comes to the bulldog, is all too often an ongoing tragedy. Our human priorities resulted, over time, in a dog so inbred there is no way to address its ills without ceasing to breed it in its current form. The Norwegian Kennel Club is appealing the recent court decision, but whatever the ultimate legal outcome, there will be no changing that reality. Sometimes, it seems, we can simultaneously love a dog too much and not enough.

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