Bulldogs: The Good, The Bad, And The Skin

by  Krista Magnifico, DVM

Before you fall prey to the incredibly charming and sweet  captivating persona of a Bulldog, you have to know what you are getting yourself into.

They are the cutest puppies on the planet, (I know I already said this about Bassett Hounds, but I do think Bulldogs are just as cute, OK maybe a little cuter). Those smooshy round faces, that rolly-polly body, and the adorable-ness is impossible not to make even the most rigid person melt to their knees. At 0 to 12 months old there is nothing but cute bounding abundant love, smiles, laughing, joy, an internal self affirmation that this was the best decision you ever made in your life, and you KNOW that you will never love anything more than this puppy!

After 14 months things start to go very slowly downhill.

It starts with a very gradual almost undetectable scratch every so often. Or maybe a "little pinker than normal" ear. After a few weeks the itch becomes an incessant "thump-thump-thump" of the foot hitting the floor all night and this really starts to annoy you. So, you naturally make an appointment at your Vet's for "itchy skin." At this first visit I will listen quietly and write down everything that you are saying and doing to try to get the itch to stop. I will ask "what you are feeding? how much? how often? and what you use for flea and tick prevention?" I also will ask if "You have ever had a Bulldog before?"

After a thorough physical exam I will sit down and start to discuss everything that is about to follow in this story. 

I will admit to you that "Bulldogs are one of my favorite breeds of dogs." "They are gentle, friendly, affectionate, great with children, and usually have few to no behavioral issues. BUT, they are probably the most expensive breed of dog to own." I will explain my bold statement with, "they are expensive because there is no other dog breed that requires more time and attention and has more long standing issues than the average Bulldog." Your heart will sink a little, and you will hope that "your dog will prove me wrong." I won't blame you and I will keep my fingers crossed for you that you are right and I am wrong.

Here is a list of the common Bulldog problems I see:

1. Skin

This is the most common Bulldog problem that I see. Many Bulldogs that I treat need chronic medications to just "control" their itch. The skin gets thicker, and bacteria and yeast overpopulate, they get itchier, and scratch more, and traumatize their skin, and then develop wounds, etc. The cycle gets more severe and the interval between the outbreaks becomes shorter. If you have a "quick" first visit at your vet's office I would be willing to bet that they just put you on a steroid (most likely prednisone) for a few weeks. the itch will quickly go away and you will feel as if it is behind you. I really hope that at that first visit your Vet warns you about the likelihood that this problem will be chronic, and that long term steroids are dangerous. when I say "skin" here I am talking, feet, face, ears, butt, belly, and everywhere!.

2. Entropion

This is a condition where the excessive heavy haired skin around the eyes rolls inward. The constant rubbing of hair on the cornea causes excessive tearing and trauma to the cornes. It is like ALWAYS having hair or an eyelash in your eye, annoying and painful as your cornea is worn away. It is usually corrected surgically by giving the Bulldog a face life. We actually remove some of the excess skin so the skin roll doesn't rub the cornea of the eye. I have done a lot of face lifts (eyelid tacking) on 3 to 8 week old puppies. If the entopion is not corrected the dog can go blind from the cornea getting damaged beyond the point of being able to see through the eye anymore. (See Levi's story http://kmdvm.blogspot.com/2011/08/levis-luck-and-why-we-dont-get-dvm.html )

3. Joint problems

When you mutate any animal as much as we have selectively bred the Bulldog you get genetic problems. the elbows and shoulders carry a very heavy load because these guys are so front heavy. Most dogs carry about 60% of their weight on their front legs but Bulldogs can carry up to 70%. Those broad thick shoulders cause an immense amount of joint stress on the elbows which are already bowed out. And just for fun try to look at a hip x-ray of a Bulldog. Most of them don't even look like they have a hip socket.

4. Brachycephalic Syndrome. (aka short skull)

 Our term for what happens when you shove the nose up into the brain. Dogs were supposed to have a nose. When you breed for no nose the anatomical architechture has to go somewhere so the following things happen to the Bulldog.
  • your soft palate, (the fleshy part of the back of the roof of your mouth gets pushed down your throat which makes it harder to breathe or pant.
  • your trachea gets weaker. So what should be a hard cartilagenous tracheal tube is instead a soft collapsible straw. If you breathe in to hard it is like trying to suck an very thick milkshake up a straw. The straw collapses instead of the milkshake going into your mouth.
  • your laryngeal saccules become everted. These live in the back of your mouth on both sides. They are supposed to live in little pockets sort of in the cheek area. But if there is enough stress in your mouth to breathe they become everted. They look like a grape on the walls of your mouth.
  • the wings of the nose are excessive and narrow the noses ability to bring air into the nose. Try to hold your nose about 90% closed and then take a deep breath, impossible right?

We usually recommend surgery to correct any and all of these so that the dog can breath better.

I will go on to say that in most cases these guys have chronic "atopy". 

This means that these dogs are genetically  predisposed to inhaled or absorbed environmental allergens. To make it simple anything in your environment can set these guys off. Because we can't live in a plastic bubble we try to "minimize" how many things these guys react to. So our basic advise is to;
  1. Keep them on a GOOD flea & tick preventative monthly year around. This is a REQUIREMENT! There can't be any missed doses. We know that the one thing most dogs are allergic to, or can trigger their itchiness is flea. And 1 flea bite can start the whole cascade of itchiness. We all also know that once you start scratching you get itchier.
  2. Keep the skin as calm and quiet at home as possible in the hopes that it will reduce the severity and duration of your "bad flare-ups." I ALWAYS go over the things that an owner with a dog with atopy should have at home. These include ear cleaners, Benadryl, medicated wipes, Fatty acid supplements, sprays and shampoos. I do a lot of training of my clients to try to minimize the flare-ups.
  3. We always talk about food. I want people to understand that about 12% of the dogs with allergies have a food component to their allergies. I get soo much resistance from owners to try a hypo-allergenic diet. The first thing that they always reply is, "he has been on the same food his whole life." To which I reply, "you develop allergies over time. So although he may have been fine eating beef, chicken, or dairy for the last few years he may now be allergic to them. And, if we can just keep that food out of his body then maybe we won't have the allergy anymore?' "If someone told you that you were allergic to bees then you would stay away from bees right?" I also tell my clients that we want to find something that is cureable. Not eating a food that causes your skin to itch is a cure for itchy skin. "You should hope for food allergy, because the rest of the list probably isn't cureable."

As a last few pieces of advice I will say; it is very important to know your dog, pay attention to them, watch for any signs of things being abnormal and don't dismiss them. If you see hives give Benadryl. If you have very itchy skin give a bath. If you see your dog is lethargic, havign trouble breathing, swelling up like a cartoon character get in your car and go to the Vet NOW!

An allergic reaction can kill.

And lastly, know what you are getting into. Those sweet adorable round snuffly faces and genetic disasters that can cost a fortune. But lord knows I love them!


Krista Magnifico, DVM owns a small animal hospital in northern Maryland, where she practices everyday. She wants to make quality veterinary care available to everyone, everywhere at any time; trying to save the world 1 wet nose @ a time.  Her blog is a diary of he day-to-day life & the animals and people she meets. 

Dr. Krista is also the founder of pawbly.com, free pet advice and assistance.

To contact her, you may leave a comment on her blog, email her or catch her on Twitter or Facebook.

Articles by Dr. Magnifico:
Don't Make This Mistake: Ruby's Death To Heat Stroke 
Parvo: Cora's Story 
Jake's Laryngeal Paralysis
The Tip Of The Iceberg: The Unexpected Dental Dilemma
The Ear Ache That Wasn't Going Away: Tottsie's Story
Cody's Eyelid Tumor
Ruger's Mysterious Illness
The Day The Heart Stood Still: Timber's Story 
Different Definition Of Comfort Food: Levi's Story
The First Seizure: Honey's Story