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Do English Bulldogs Face Extinction?

One of the most popular breeds in the world is also one of the least genetically diverse, causing huge implications for the breed.

by Jane Brackman, PhD
October 13, 2021
An English bulldog resting on a floor.
Photo: Cara Dolan / Stocksy

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Not surprisingly, a study found that the English Bulldog no longer retains enough genetic diversity to correct life-threatening physical and genomic abnormalities. This means breeders cannot use the established population of purebred Bulldogs to reverse the trend of extreme and painful exaggerations such as crippling dwarfism and respiratory deformities—traits that uninformed pet parents, unfortunately, find appealing. How did this happen? Can anything be done to save the English Bulldog?

It all goes back to English Bulldogs in the 1800s.

In the early 1800s, Bulldogs were trained for bull-baiting, a particularly cruel and vicious sport. In 1835 the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals convinced Parliament to enact the first animal cruelty law for the protection of domestic animals, including outlawing bull baiting. 

As such, the Bulldog had outlived its usefulness. Like the pre-19th century Wolfhound that disappeared with the eradication of wolves in the British Isles and the Tumbler whose demise was the invention of hunting firearms, the Bulldog was destined for extinction.

But, beginning around 1840, the Victorian dog fancy’s unabashed sentimentality was a catalyst for saving even the most formidable working breeds from their inevitable demise. Like many others, such as the Dachshund and Mastiff, Bulldogs went from working hard to hardly working. Utility dogs were “refined” and transformed to fill jobs they weren’t originally bred for—as show dogs and companions. Altered physical and behavioral characteristics and decreased aggression levels were more compatible with their augmented duties as house pets.

The American Kennel Club first recognized the breed in 1886. So, beginning in the late 1890s, Bulldog breeders selected small groups of genes from a diverse genome to manipulate the dog’s appearance. They were, in effect, increasing the odds that genetic anomalies would more likely be expressed in an effort to bring out exaggerated traits, like the Bulldog’s baby-like face, corkscrew tail, and affable personality.

As “desirable” aesthetic traits were selected for, other genetic variants, including beneficial genes that contribute to overall health, were eliminated from their gene pool, never to be reclaimed.

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Past limits on the gene pool lead to modern health problems.

In the last few decades, the most exaggerated traits in the Bulldog—the extreme brachycephalic skull and deformed skeleton—have become increasingly pronounced because naive consumers desire that look and consequently, that’s what many breeders select for. Driven by economics, fashion, and uninformed decisions, breeders and buyers either ignore or are unaware of the significant genetic problems that have spread throughout the Bulldog population.

The health problems of the English Bulldog have been well documented. The breed ranks second in congenital disease deaths among puppies. Their brachycephalic skull causes upper respiratory problems, a leading cause of death among Bulldogs. But that’s not all—there’s also chondrodysplasia (a skeletal disorder causing hip and elbow dysplasia) and a myriad of other health problems with bulldogs’ teeth, skin, heart, eyes, and immune system.

The demise of the breed may not be a good thing for Bulldog enthusiasts, but it will put an end to the malformed and painfully crippled modern Bulldog that is recognized today. The good news is that some breeders intend to bring back the “Olde-Fashioned-Bulldogge” by cross-breeding with similar breeds to re-diversify the genome. Will Bulldog enthusiasts jump on board to save the breed and ensure they can live a healthy and happy life? Only time will tell.

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Jane Brackman, PhD

Jane Brackman, PhD, is an authority on the cultural history of canine domestication and the author of two books on pets in 19th-century America.