How a History of Breeding for Looks Led to Health Problems for Bulldogs Over Time

Last updated:
November 27, 2023
A french bull dog proudly standing outside on a leash

Bulldogs are quickly becoming one of the more popular dog breeds, with both the French Bulldog and English Bulldog rising in popularity—according to the American Kennel Club’s Most Popular Dog Breeds of 2022 list. On that list, Frenchies ranked at #1—overtaking the beloved retrievers for the first time in 31 years—and English Bulldogs at #6.1 It’s easy to say that these Bulldogs have made a home in our hearts, so we should know how best to take care of them.

History of the Bulldog Breed

According to the 1938 Blue Book of Bulldogs, the English Bulldog breed can be traced back to as early as 1210. The breed was developed mainly for sport, and their strength and resilience needed to be enough to go head-to-head with cattle and bulls. But when the sport of bull baiting was banned in 1835, the Bulldog was a breed left without a purpose.2 

Gradually, as the breed was left without a job to do, the ideal traits that were focused on for breeding purposes changed and new classifications were made of Bulldogs by size, leading to the English Toy Bulldog, the smallest classification. 

The English Toy Bulldog became popular among highly skilled clothing makers who were being pushed out of the English textile world by the development and progression of the textile mill. These lacemakers moved to Normandy in northern France—taking their small, lovable Toy Bulldogs with them—where their skills and crafts were still in demand. Many of these women were so infatuated with their toy-sized dogs that some of the standard breed expectations were tossed to the wayside, with these breeds having ears that stood up rather than the traditional “rosed” or crinkled ear shape. 

Over time, as these Toy Bulldogs gained popularity and were brought home to the Americas by tourists who’d become infatuated with them in France, they became known as their own breed—the French Bulldog—so aptly named from their origin. Thus, the world’s first French Bulldog club was formed, setting standards for the breed’s appearance–such as their signature “bat” ears.3 

Health issues faced by Bulldogs

Because both English and French Bulldogs have been bred for their appearance for decades, little thought is given to traits that would be of any genuine benefit to the efficacy and well-being of these dogs.  

This mentality around breeding these dogs leads to many health problems that more conscientious breeding would mitigate immensely. By choosing dogs with less exaggerated features, many of the common health concerns of English and French bulldogs could be overcome and bred out, but then the breeds wouldn’t fit the visual aesthetic that Bulldog lovers are used to.

Common health concerns for English Bulldogs: 

The Royal Veterinary College in the UK did a study on a set of random samples from 2,662 English Bulldogs and 22,039 other breeds of dogs and found that English bulldogs are more likely to develop one or more disorders by double than other dogs.4,5 

Disorders that were most highly represented include:4,5

  • Skin Fold Dermatitis: Skin fold pockets are warm and moist, which provides a perfect place for bacteria and yeast to grow, skin fold dermatitis is an infection in that pocket between folds of skin.6
  • Dermatitis: A skin condition leading to itching and inflammation caused by anything from fleas/ticks to bacterial or fungal infections, as well as allergies to food or their environment like pollen.7 
  • Cherry Eye: When a tear gland attached to the third eyelid in the corner of the eye flips outward and appears as a reddish mass at the inner corner of the eye.8 
  • Protruding Lower Jaw: This physical change in Bulldogs can lead to difficulty closing the mouth, leading to misaligned teeth coming into contact with tissues that would not normally be in contact with the teeth and creating discomfort, potentially to the point of trauma.9
  • Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS): Associated with short heads, including all flat-faced breeds, in breeding shorter snouts for these breeds ,some also bred narrow nostrils and a small windpipe, making it difficult for the dogs to breathe.8
  • Chronic Dry Eye: Tear production provides more than just moisture to the eye; tears also contain antibacterial proteins, mucus, white blood cells, and other enzymes. Chronic dry eye leads to the glands adding none of the additional benefits to the tears, leading to dry but mucous-filled eyes.10
  • Rolled Inward Eyelids/Entropion: When a dog’s eyelid rolls inward toward the eye it can lead to irritation from the eyelashes rubbing against the surface of the eye. Irritation can affect the dog in varying degrees of severity from squinting, tearing, or watery discharge from the eye to as severe as corneal ulceration and vision loss.11

Common health concerns for French Bulldogs

Using veterinary clinical data from the Royal Veterinary College’s VetCompass Programme, a study was conducted in 2021 whose goal was to compare the frequency of common disorders in French Bulldogs against other breeds. This study on 2,781 French Bulldogs and 21,850 non-French Bulldogs found that French Bulldogs are more likely to develop over 20 common health disorders than other breeds.12 

Some of these disorders are the same that English Bulldogs are more likely to develop due to their shared ancestry.8

  • Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS): see more info above 
  • Cherry eye: See more info above
  • Skin infections: See more info above
  • Rolled Inward Eyelids/Entropion: See more info above
  • Heat stroke: Dogs cool themselves down by panting, which evaporates moisture from the upper respiratory tract and helps them stay cool—rather than sweating from pores in their skin the way humans do. Dogs with BOAS have a harder time breathing and that leads to a more difficult time keeping cool through panting. 
  • Birthing issues: French Bulldogs are very rarely able to give birth naturally, with most Frenchies' births needing to be performed through a C-section procedure. Over time they have been bred to have large heads and very narrow hips making it difficult for the pups to safely exit the birth canal, leading to a higher risk of death for both the puppies and the mother.
  • Back injuries: French Bulldogs can be born with a spinal deformity of an incomplete vertebra, the bone of the spine. This deformity may not always lead to long-term issues but it can result in compression of the spinal cord and lead to weakness in hind legs and other side effects. It can be treated but severe cases can require surgery to manage.
  • Luxating patella: This happens when a kneecap slips out of place, dogs with a luxating patella may have arthritis later in life or in more severe cases may need surgery to correct it. Generally, as the kneecap moves they limp for a short period of time and are able to kick their leg a few times to get it back in place as if nothing has happened.  
  • Increased risk with anesthesia: Because of a French Bulldog’s narrower trachea and airway abnormalities, it is much more difficult to insert the tube that is needed to help dogs breathe when under anesthesia. If the tube is removed too soon while recovering from anesthesia, they may not be awake enough to overcome general airway issues to continue breathing on their own. 

Common cancers diagnosed in Bulldogs

Skin Cancer

Bulldogs are overrepresented in the number of dogs that develop mast cell tumors.13 Mast cell tumors are a type of skin cancer that affects the cells on the skin that are responsible for creating allergic responses. They can have many different appearances on the skin, so finding out whether a lump or bump is this kind of tumor is something a pet parent needs to bring to their vet to identify. 

You can learn more about Mast Cell Tumors in our blog here. 

Oral Malignant Melanoma

Melanomas are a cancer of the skin cells that produce the skin pigment called melanin, they can appear on any part of the body where those cells are present, so they are often another form of skin cancer. When found on the skin, they can often be non-cancerous or benign, however, when found in the mouth (gums, lips, tongue, upper palate) they are more often cancerous or malignant. Bulldogs have a higher likelihood of developing the malignant form somewhere in their mouth, which makes it important to keep an eye on your Bulldog’s mouth through regular checks—brushing their teeth regularly gives a great opportunity to keep an eye on the skin.13 

You can learn more about Melanoma in our blog here. 

Testicular Cancer and Breast Cancer 

Both testicular cancer and breast (mammary) cancer are common diagnoses in Bulldogs. 

Testicular cancer stems from dogs with cryptorchidism, which is when one or both of the testicles don’t descend from the abdomen at about 8 weeks old.13

Breast cancer or mammary tumors only have a 50% chance of being malignant. There is no identified cause linked to breast cancer yet, but it has been shown that hormones and genetics are major factors in the likelihood of developing it within a dog’s lifetime.13

You can learn more about Mammary Tumors in our blog here.

By spaying or neutering your dog at an early age the probability of them developing testicular or breast cancer lowers by a significant amount. 


Lymphoma is a cancer that attacks white blood cells called lymphocytes. When lymphocytes are working properly, they are a major part of the immune system and help to identify threats to the body. Unfortunately, because the job of a healthy lymphocyte is to circulate throughout the body, when those cells become cancerous they then have more freedom to spread and metastasize.

You can learn more about the basics of lymphoma in our blog here. 

Lymphoma, Lymphosarcoma, and Leukemia Misdiagnoses in Bulldogs - New Syndrome Discovered

According to a study conducted by Colorado State University, funded by the Morris Animal Foundation, researchers may have discovered that English Bulldogs thought to have lymphoma or forms of lymphatic system cancers may actually have a non-cancerous syndrome that presents itself in a similar way to a B-cell lymphoma or leukemia.14 

This non-cancerous syndrome is called polyclonal B-cell lymphocytosis, which can look to a veterinarian like leukemia based on original diagnostics, but the patient with this syndrome does not actually have cancer. In a previous study led by Anne Avery, PhD, VMD, she and her research team identified breeds with increased risk of B-cell Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia; English Bulldogs were highly represented but were unique in their data. English Bulldogs were significantly younger when they presented signs of BCLL, and they had differences in what their B-cells showed on the cell surface when being analyzed in a flow cytometry test. These notable differences led the researchers to look closer at the samples to identify if they were actually seeing cases of BCLL or another unidentified disease—now identified as polyclonal B-cell lymphocytosis.14 

With this new development in the veterinary medicine field, many English Bulldogs will be safe from a misdiagnosis. However, this may mean on an individual level that English Bulldogs will need an additional set of tests to make sure that they are able to continue happy and healthy lives without the burden of unnecessary cancer treatments. 

How ImpriMed can help

While Bulldogs have a history of being thrown to the wayside with their health and happiness, ImpriMed highlights the individual and helps to find each patient the best treatment plan for them. We help veterinary oncologists provide the very best treatment possible to every canine lymphoma patient that we encounter. 

Using advanced labs, an ever-growing database of information on canine lymphoma patients, artificial intelligence, and your dog’s live cancer cells, we create a Personalized Prediction Profile specific to your pet and your pet alone.

The Personalized Prediction Profile helps your vet to create the best chemotherapy treatment plan to get your dog into remission as quickly as possible.

Find out how to get your vet involved with ImpriMed today.

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