The Lifespan and Health Conditions of French Bulldogs and Labrador Retrievers

Two large studies reveal the kinds of health problems that affect French Bulldogs and Labrador Retrievers – the two most popular breeds in the UK.

The lifespan and health of French Bulldogs and Labrador Retrievers (both pictured)
Photos: left, Irina Kozorog; right, Dmussman. Both Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Two of the most popular breeds of dog in the USA, Canada, and the UK are French Bulldogs and Labrador Retrievers. In fact in 2018, French Bulldogs knocked Labrador Retrievers off the top spot in the UK for the first time.

Because pedigree dogs are bred from a closed genetic pool, they can develop health issues related to the breed. As well, of course, any dog can be affected by various canine conditions. In the UK, a large database (VetCompass) that records details of primary care vet visits has been used to find out what kinds of health problems certain breeds have, and how long they tend to live, on average (O’Neill et al, 2018; McGreevy et al, 2018). The studies are based on health records for 2013.

Having a better understanding of how common different disorders are in particular breeds means that breeders and Kennel Clubs can make plans to improve the health of those breeds. As well, it means that dog owners have a better idea of the questions to ask a breeder, and veterinarians can keep an eye out for the conditions that are most common in those breeds.

It’s important to note there are some limitations to the data. When the overall numbers of a breed in the database are small, when the numbers of that breed are growing rapidly, or when the average age of the dogs in the database is young, the data may not reflect all the issues affecting the breed, some of which tend to appear as dogs age. This applies to French Bulldogs in the sample.

So which health issues tend to affect French Bulldogs and Labrador Retrievers?

French Bulldogs

The health and lifespan of French Bulldogs. Photo shows French Bulldog sleeping
Photo: Mylene2401/Pixabay

Number of dogs in the database: 2228

Median age at time of study: 1.3 years

Median lifespan: 3.6 years

Most common causes of death: Brain disorder and spinal disorder. However, given the young age of dogs in the sample, this may change as the dogs age as they are not old enough for many diseases associated with old age.

Most common conditions: 72.4% had at least one condition. The most common disorders were otitis externa (affecting 14%), diarrhea (7.5%), and conjunctivitis (3.2%). Other common conditions were the nails being too long and skin-fold dermatitis. In this sample, 2.7% had an upper respiratory tract disease, and 2.4% had been diagnosed with Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome. These rates are much lower than other studies, likely due to the young age of the dogs and one-year time-scale of the study.

Behaviour: Surprisingly, 2.3% of French Bulldogs were described as aggressive, with this being the 13th most common condition listed.

Colours: The most common colours were brindle and fawn.

Population growth: The rise in popularity of French Bulldogs is astounding. The paper reports that in 2004, French Bulldogs made up only 0.02% of new puppies in the database, and by 2013 (the time data was collected for this study) it had risen to 1.46%. Now, as we know from KC data, the French Bulldog is the most popular dog breed in the UK.

It may be that some issues typical of the breed would be more likely to appear as the dogs get older, and that breeding practices change as a result of the increased demand (e.g. a higher percentage of dogs from puppy mills vs specialist breeders), and this may in turn affect the prevalence of genetic disorders.

Other info: The scientists write,
“With several of the most common disorders in French Bulldogs linked to their physical conformation (e.g. URT [upper respiratory tract] disease and ophthalmological conditions), the increasing popularity of this breed is not necessarily a benign phenomenon. Increased demand for dogs with extreme conformational features is suggested to be detrimental to these dogs’ welfare both because of directly linked disorder risk and also because steeply increasing demand may contribute to suboptimal breeding and welfare standards as breeders and suppliers rapidly attempt to fulfil the heightened consumer demand.”

Labrador Retrievers

The health and lifespan of Labrador Retrievers. Chocolate labs (pictured) don't live as long
Photo: danielle828/Pixabay

Number of dogs in the database: 33,320.

Median age at time of study: 4.9 years

Median lifespan: 12.0 years overall, but on average chocolate Labs live 10.7 years compared to 12.1 for black and yellow Labs.

Most common causes of death: Musculoskeletal disorders and tumours were the most common causes of death.

Most common conditions: 61.6% of Labradors had at least one condition, and the most common were otitis externa (often called “swimmer’s ear”) in 10%, overweight and obesity (8.85%) and degenerative joint disease (5.5%). Lameness and periodontal disease were the next most common disorders. Chocolate labs were more likely to have ear and skin diseases than black and yellow Labs.

Behaviour: In contrast to French Bulldogs, aggression did not feature in the list of the 20 most common conditions. Undesirable behaviour was listed for 1.5% of Labs, making it the 16th most common condition.

Colours: Labrador Retrievers come in black, chocolate, and yellow. The most common colour was black, followed by yellow. Chocolate was the least common but still made up 24% of Labs.

Other info: The number of Labrador Retrievers in the UK dropped significantly from 2004 until 2013 when the data for this study was collected. Male dogs weighed more than female ones, and while for females, spaying was not associated with overweight, for male dogs neutering was associated with the dog being overweight or obese.

The scientists write,
“We were interested in the association with coat colour because chocolate pigmentation is recessive in dogs. So, if chocolate coat colour is desired in litters, breeders may be motivate to breed from certain lines that may inadvertently increase the ensuing puppies’ predisposition to certain diseases. It is possible that a more restricted population gene pool has a higher carriage rate of the disease risk genes involved in ear and skin conditions.”

The overall health of French Bulldogs and Labrador Retrievers

These results show the most common conditions affecting French Bulldogs and Labrador Retrievers, as well as changes in the popularity of these breeds.

The finding that chocolate Labs tend to live less long and are more likely to be affected by certain conditions are interesting. Other research has suggested personality differences between chocolate Labs vs yellow and black Labs, at least according to owner reports.

Because the sample of French Bulldogs was so young, they may not yet have been diagnosed with congenital conditions associated with the breed. Research shows that French Bulldog owners typically choose the breed because of it's appearance and personality, but many people are concerned about the health of this and other brachycephalic breeds. Here are some suggestions if you love French Bulldogs but want to consider alternatives too.

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

What do you love most about these breeds?

Other posts about Labrador Retrievers:
If you lead a Lab to water, should you let them swim?
The Labrador lifestyle
Behaviour problems in guide dogs
Great photos are important to dog adoption

McGreevy, P. D., Wilson, B. J., Mansfield, C. S., Brodbelt, D. C., Church, D. B., Dhand, N., ... & O’Neill, D. G. (2018). Labrador retrievers under primary veterinary care in the UK: demography, mortality and disorders. Canine genetics and epidemiology, 5(1), 8. 

O’Neill, D. G., Baral, L., Church, D. B., Brodbelt, D. C., & Packer, R. M. (2018). Demography and disorders of the French bulldog population under primary veterinary care in the UK in 2013. Canine genetics and epidemiology, 5(1), 3. 

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