The rise and fall of the celebrity ‘It’ dog

Short-nosed breeds have long been popular - but animal welfare advocates warn they face breathing problems among other health issues (Karsten Wingeart/Unsplash)
Short-nosed breeds have long been popular - but animal welfare advocates warn they face breathing problems among other health issues (Karsten Wingeart/Unsplash)

Pugs not drugs! Pug life! Pugs and kisses!

A firm fixture on greetings cards, T-shirts and the laps of celebrities, the flat-faced, short-haired nugget of a canine is the ultimate It dog: compact, cute and endlessly Instagrammable. It is also, according to the Royal Veterinary College, a breed twice as likely to experience at least one disorder each year, compared with any other dog.

It is no wonder, then, that the pug is one of a handful of breeds — including Pekingese and French Bulldog — mentioned in a recent letter sent from animal welfare group PETA to Kennel Club Chair Tony Allcock OBE calling on the organisation to bar brachycephalic — or flat-faced — dogs from famous dog show Crufts, which will be held in Birmingham on March 9.

Kate Werner, senior campaigns manager at PETA, wrote: “The Kennel Club must realise that the tide is turning and take a stand against promoting dogs who spend their lives in misery. You state on your website that ‘physical exaggerations that are in any way to the detriment of health are not acceptable’. So, given the wealth of evidence that shows how vulnerable flat-faced breeds are to chronic health issues, now is the time to take action.”

A blog on the PETA website further explains its position. “Any flat-faced dog breeds – like bulldogs and pugs – can barely breathe without gasping for air, let alone enjoy a walk or chase a ball. These dogs endure miserable lives. Veterinarians across the country are performing costly operations to expand the animals’ airways and make their lives a little more bearable.”

This pressure from PETA comes not long after stationer Moonpig announced they would stop selling cards featuring pictures of pugs and French bulldogs after British Veterinary Association (BVA) wrote to a number of retailers explaining that the proliferation of these breeds fuels demand for an animal which ultimately suffers through its life.

Pugs are considered cute - but are twice as likely than other dogs to develop health disorders (Ashleigh Robertson/Unsplash)
Pugs are considered cute - but are twice as likely than other dogs to develop health disorders (Ashleigh Robertson/Unsplash)

Pugs, King Charles spaniels and French bulldogs are popular because of their compact bodies and placid nature. Plus they don’t need a whole lot of exercise and make for a perfect lap dog. Aesthetically they are appealing thanks to huge eyes in a small squashed face which can often appear distorted — so they are more parody of a cute dog than cute dog.

Celebrities with French Bulldogs include David Beckham, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Reese Witherspoon, Eva Longoria, Leonardo di Caprio and Snoop Dogg. Meanwhile Gerard Butler, Kelly Brook, Kelly Osborne and Nicola Roberts all have pugs.

So much celebrity favour has made dogs like this, in many cases, Instagrammable accessories and status symbols. Pedigree flat-faced dogs are not cheap. Pugs can cost up to £1,500 while French Bulldog pups are sold for well over £3,000. King Charles spaniels and British bulldogs will set you back around £4,000. But selective breeding — to fulfil an ‘ideal’ of a cartoonishly endearing appearance — has meant their faces have become increasingly squashed and their eyes ever more protruding.

However, pugs and their short-nosed pals are not the first example of dogs as accessories. Far from it.

In fact, there is evidence that pets served an aesthetic purpose as far back as the Ancient Egyptians who were always immortalising their cats in art form. Then during Victorian period, proud owners would take their dogs to be photographed in studios. The golden age of Hollywood saw Pekingese become the pup of choice for stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner.

Fast forward to circa 2000 and the dawn of the handbag dog: a canine small enough to tote about like fluffy luggage but with a massive price tag. Paris Hilton was synonymous with the purse pooch — Tinkerbell was the most famous — but plenty of other celebrities invested in portable pubs, including Rod Steward who, in 2003, clutched a tiny chihuahua as he walked the red carpet at the Grammys.

Then, Instagram arrived in 2011 and people had a platform to showcase their dogs, many creating accounts dedicated to their pets. Today @dougthepug is one notable example: with 3 .7 million followers he is one of the most famous dogs the world.

Having Instagrammable canines became a whole new sort of status symbol. One that would be a the perfect pet, but also a popular addition to the grid.

Beloved pet: Paris Hilton with Tinkerbell (Phil McCarten/Getty Images)
Beloved pet: Paris Hilton with Tinkerbell (Phil McCarten/Getty Images)

Demand for short-nosed dogs soared and in 2018 the French bulldog overtook the labrador to become the UK’s most popular breed, although Labs are now back on top. The number of pugs registered in the UK peaked in 2017 and is now on the wane.

In 2020 research by Nottingham Trent University found that twice as many flat-faced dogs were abandoned and sent to live at rescue shelters in 2018 than in 2014.

With the ethics of breeding and buying flat-faced dogs under such scrutiny — it seems their time in the celebrity spotlight might coming to an end.

Bill Lambert of The Kennel Club acknowledged the health issues attached to brachycephalic dogs — and the causes.

“Sadly over the years many flat-faced dogs have been bred outside of any positive influence for a more exaggerated look... driven by profit, fashion and celebrity influence because it is perceived to look cute.”

He also pointed to efforts the club has made to put a stop to poor breeding practises and the subsequent health complications they engender in dogs, namely the Respiratory Function Grading scheme with the University of Cambridge to check for the future likelihood of breathing difficulties.

“We urge puppy buyers to look for breeders who use this test and ensure they are checking that the parents of their puppy do not have exaggerated physical features.”

But with countries such as Norway banning the breeding of both English bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles spaniels — both brachycephalic breeds — on animal welfare grounds just one month ago it is likely the UK will see increased pressure for similar laws to change here.

Whatever the future holds for brachycephalic dogs, there’s no doubt that using them as status symbols is not longer en vogue.