Although bull-baiting was banned in 1835, the bulldog lived on. Since then, the breed has endured more damage to its health than those injuries inflicted by its old bovine adversary, says David Tomlinson

The bulldog was once a legitimate sporting dog, but now they bear little resemblance to their bull-baiting ancestors. Bulldog health is doing far more damage to the breed than their old adversary ever did, argues David Tomlinson.

For more, this is why you should think twice before buying the ever so popular breed, the French bulldog – read dogs with breathing difficulties.


If I had been writing this column a couple of centuries ago, then the bulldog would have been a legitimate sporting dog to write about. Bulldogs were still being bred for bull-baiting, the principles of which were quite simple. The bulldog would be entered against a staked bull and would be expected to grab the unfortunate bovine by the nose, not letting go until it had successfully pulled the bull to the ground. It did this by corkscrewing its body around the bull’s neck, unbalancing the latter until it eventually fell over.

It was quite a feat for a dog that weighed a mere 80lb to pull down a bull that might have weighed 2,000lb or more. Dogs that were not up to the task were liable to be tossed, gored or trampled, so it was very much a case of survival of the fittest. Successful dogs became valuable, for heavy wagers were placed on the results of a fight. It’s worth noting that bull-baiting wasn’t invented in Britain but dates back to ancient times; it was popular with the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. In Britain, it flourished from the 13th to the 18th centuries.

In the early days, a type of bullmastiff was used but selective breeding eventually ended up with a smaller, more agile animal that was short-backed and front heavy, as well as being brave, aggressive and tenacious. Many prints exist of bull-baiting, depicting the fighting dogs as a longer-legged and considerably more athletic-looking dog than the modern version. Bull-baiting was finally outlawed in 1835. That should really have been the end of the bulldog but some dogs survived in Britain, while others were exported to Germany and to the USA.

These dogs’ descendants bear little more than a passing resemblance to their ferocious ancestor, and I doubt if a 21st-century bulldog would last more than a minute in combat with a bull. Selective breeding has produced an animal that is so seriously flawed that its expected lifespan, six years, is the shortest of any pedigree dog. Most bulldogs are conceived by artificial insemination because they are not capable of mating naturally, while puppies are invariably born by caesarean section. These operations are costly and this is reflected in the price of a bulldog puppy, with a typical figure anything from £1,500 to £3,000.

The buying price might be high but the running costs are even higher, as it would be difficult to breed a more physically flawed dog than this. The flat face leads to breathing difficulties, which explains the rasping breath of many bulldogs, for most go through life snorting and wheezing. They are fighting to get breath into their lungs. Curiously, some owners find their dog’s huffing and puffing one if its endearing features.


The excessive wrinkling of the skin on the face may give a bulldog much of its characterful appearance, but it is liable to lead to infection if not cleaned regularly. The official breed standard requires the jaws to be “broad, strong and square, lower jaw slightly projecting in front of upper with moderate turn up”. That officially sanctioned undershot jaw gives the bulldog abnormal teeth, another cause of trouble, while because the mouth doesn’t shut properly bulldogs tend to slobber and drool. They also gulp air when they eat, and as result suffer from flatulence.

They suffer from hip dysplasia and probably have the worst hips of any of our pedigree dogs. I use the word ‘probably’ because no one really knows, as so few are ever hip scored. Their respiratory system is so compromised that it’s regarded as risky to anaesthetise them to have their teeth cleaned, let alone have their hips scored. Another problem is the short, screw tail that the dogs find difficult to wag, while many bulldogs suffer from hemivertebrae, a congenital condition in which one or more vertebrae are deformed.

The list of health problems goes on and on, and there’s not the space here to discuss the bulldog’s tendency to overheat in hot weather, or the fact that many individuals suffer from pulmonic stenosis, a hereditary heart abnormality. But perhaps the most astonishing thing about the bulldog is that so many people want to own one. Last year, no fewer than 9,922 puppies were registered by the Kennel Club, making it our fourth most popular breed.

One has to ask how many of those puppy buyers really knew what they were taking on when they acquired a bulldog. Nobody with any sense would buy a car with a similar list of faults, knowing that it would rarely run for a month or two without going to the garage, so why do they buy a bulldog? It could be the celebrity connection: many celebrities, from Brad Pitt to Lewis Hamilton and David Beckham, have them.

Of course, the bulldog is far from the only pedigree dog with serious health problems – the French bulldog shares with its British cousin many of the same hereditary faults, and with 33,661 registered last year, it’s even more popular. There are responsible breeders trying to produce healthy bulldogs, but the breed is now so badly flawed that it is probably past redemption. One can’t help but think it would have been a good thing if the bulldog had passed into history at the same time as bull-baiting.