Irresistible: Emotions affect choice of breed despite welfare issues

Knowing a breed of dog may have health problems does not stop people from wanting one, because emotions get in the way. 

This French Bulldog puppy is cute - but sadly the breed is prone to health problems
A French Bulldog. Photo: Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A new Danish study by Peter S Sandøe (University of Copenhagen) et al investigates the reasons why people acquire particular small breeds of dog and how attached the owners feel to their pet. The research helps explain why some breeds are popular despite a high incidence of welfare problems. 

The study looked at people in Denmark with French Bulldogs, Chihuahuas, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Cairn Terriers.

The results suggest that even knowing a dog of a particular breed is likely to have health problems may not stop people from getting one, because of their emotional response to the breed. 

Lead author, Peter Sandøe told me in an email,
“In all, this study prompts the conclusion that the apparent paradox of people who love their dogs continuing to acquire dogs from breeds with breed-related welfare problems may not be perceived as a paradox from the point of view of prospective owners of breeds such as Chihuahuas and French Bulldogs.  
Thus apparently available information about the problems in these two breeds has not served to prevent their growing popularity because fundamental emotional responses to the phenotypic attributes of these breeds are highly effective positive motivators.”
Some owners did not prioritize health when getting their dog. As well, for owners of CKCS and Chihuahuas, those whose dog had more health/behaviour problems had a stronger attachment to the dog.

French Bulldogs and Chihuahuas were chosen for the study because of their tendency to have problems related to their conformation (or appearance). Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were chosen because they also tend to have health problems, but not related to what they look like. Finally, Cairn Terriers were picked because they are relatively healthy, so they make a good contrast.

There were differences in how people acquired the breeds. People with Chihuahuas were most likely to say there “wasn’t really any planning”, and they were also less likely than CKCS owners and French Bulldog owners to have put time into learning about dogs from books or dog professionals before getting it. Cairn Terrier owners were also less likely to have learned in this way, and more likely to rely on prior experience with the breed.

People were most likely to get Cairn Terriers and CKCS as puppies from breeders. (In Denmark most dogs come from small breeders with between 2 and 4 breeding bitches). Although breeders were still the most common source of Chihuahuas and French Bulldogs, these breeds had a greater tendency to be acquired from a previous owner (22% of Chihuahuas and 15% of French Bulldogs) or other sources. 

A cute Chihuahua puppy. Some people said there wasn't any planning when they got their Chihuahua, evidence that emotions play a role in getting a puppy
A Chihuahua. Photo: Joy Brown/Shutterstock.

The researchers found that the dog’s distinctive appearance, breed attributes and convenience were all motivations in getting a dog. Personality was also important.

These motivations varied by breed. Distinctive appearance and personality were particularly important for owners of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and French Bulldogs. For Chihuahua owners, these were less important, but convenience played a bigger role. Owners of Cairn Terriers were less motivated by appearance and more by breed attributes. 

Interestingly, these motivations were also linked to attachment. People who were motivated by distinctive appearance and breed attributes were very attached to their dog. 

The scientists say it’s possible that appearance is directly linked to levels of attachment, because facial features that are baby-like may induce parenting behaviours in the owner. This has also been suggested by previous research (see e.g. children’s preferences for baby-like features in dogs and the role of eyebrow movements in adopting shelter dogs).

The scientists say the motivations to acquire a dog can be seen as intrinsic (as for Cairn Terriers) or extrinsic (for the three other breeds, where cuteness, baby-like features and fashion play a role).

The researchers also collected data on health and behaviour problems. French Bulldogs had the highest levels of problems and the greatest expenses. Although only 67% had visited a vet in the last year for a health check, 29% had had a sudden illness or injury, and almost 9% had a chronic illness. 12% of French Bulldog owners had spent the equivalent of more than US$760 on vet bills in the previous year. 

Chihuahuas were the most likely to have a behaviour problem (10%) and to have dental problems (33%). Most Cavalier King Charles Spaniels had been for a health check (81%), 19% had had a sudden illness or injury, and 5.5% had a chronic illness. Cairn Terriers had fewer problems and the lowest expenditure at the vet.

A Cairn Terrier - generally a healthy breed. Emotions affect people's choice of dog breed.
A Cairn Terrier. Photo: Marina Plevako/Shutterstock.

Interestingly, owners of Cairn Terriers had the lowest levels of attachment, and Chihuahuas the highest, with French Bulldog and CKCS owners in between. For example, if we take the statement, “I would do almost anything to take care of my dog”, 70% of Chihuahua owners strongly agreed. For French Bulldog owners it was 62%, CKCS owners 56%, and only 43% of Cairn Terrier owners.

But perhaps this reflects decisions that owners had already had to make about their dog. The scientists wondered if health or behaviour issues would affect people’s desire to get another dog of the same breed. 

French Bulldog owners were actually the most likely to say “yes, for sure” they would get the same breed again (29%). Only 10% of French Bulldog owners were keen to get a different breed next time, compared to 25% of Chihuahua owners. (This number is higher than the percentage of Chihuahua owners who "for sure" wanted the same breed again, 17.5%). 

For three of the breeds (Cairn Terrier, CKCS and Chihuahua), health and behaviour issues did not have an effect on the likelihood of wanting the same breed again. But for French Bulldog owners, health/behaviour issues reduced the number who said they wanted the same again, from 31% for the majority with no issues, to 20% for those with one problem and 12% for those with two problems.

Data from Swedish insurance company Agria, obtained by the researchers, provides sobering information about the median age of death, as shown in the table (just 2.5 years for male French Bulldogs and 3.8 for females). 

The median age of death of four dog breeds
Reproduced from PLOSOne under Creative Commons licence

French Bulldogs are very popular but they are brachycephalic, i.e. short-muzzled, which can cause breathing difficulties (including brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome) and eye problems. But the French Bulldog can also have what is known as a screwed bobtail (a short curly tail). Sometimes this malformation affects the spine and causes spinal problems. 

Chihuahuas are very small and this tiny, frail shape can cause many problems, including an extremely high risk of injury, knee problems (patellar luxation), and aggression because of fear.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels suffer health problems as a result of being bred from a very small stock. They are prone to heart problems and to a neurological condition called syringomyelia, in which fluid-filled cavities build up on the spinal cord. Early signs include excessive scratching, generalized pain, and weakness in the limbs.

The scientists sent questionnaires to a representative sample of owner of the four breeds, and 846 people took part. This study is well-designed and has an excellent response rate (up to 45% for the owners of Cairn Terriers). It incorporates small breeds with very different types of health problems and lifespans, which makes the results so interesting.

The results suggest there is a real challenge for people trying to promote improved welfare, since it seems that factors other than good health are important contributors to the decision to get a puppy. People’s motivations to get each breed were different, and in some cases the features of the breed that potentially cause problems also tug on our heart strings. Care-giving might also increase the attachment bond.

If people love their dogs, it makes sense they would want the same breed again. 

This important study makes a valuable contribution to animal welfare. It would be very interesting if the researchers could follow up with the owners at a later date to see if the desire to get the same breed again changes over time. 

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

The paper is open access

What factors did you take into account when choosing your dog?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Sandøe P,, Kondrup SV,, Bennett PC,, Forkman B,, Meyer I,, Proschowsky HF,, Serpell, JA,, & Lund, TB (2017). Why do people buy dogs with potential welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inherited disease? A representative study of Danish owners of four small dog breeds. PLOSOne

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