Why Do Bulldogs Have Flat Faces? Expert Explains

side view red Bulldog with flat face

Bulldogs, with their distinctive flat faces and stocky frames, have charmed their way into the hearts of dog lovers around the globe. Have you ever wondered what’s behind that smushed-in snout that seems perfect for sniffing out snacks at ground level? 

Unlike other breeds with more pronounced snouts, Bulldogs are brachycephalic dogs, a term that literally means “short head.” This unique facial structure isn’t just about good looks. It’s the result of centuries of selective breeding aimed at creating a canine with specific physical traits for various purposes, including bull-baiting in ancient times.

However, as breeders favored the distinctive short snout and broad skull, these features became more pronounced over generations. While this flat-faced look undoubtedly gives these dogs their characteristic appearance, it also comes with a set of health concerns. We cover this characteristic and more with the help of Dr. Dan O’Neill in his study of 22,333 dogs to help unravel the truth and the history of breed to explain the wrinkles.

So, Why Do Bulldogs Have Flat Faces?

Bulldogs have flat faces due to selective breeding for brachycephaly, a skull shape where the face is significantly shortened. This trait was historically favored for aesthetic reasons and has become a defining characteristic of the breed, though it also presents specific health challenges related to their respiratory and dental anatomy.

Ever looked at a Bulldog and thought, “What’s up with that smushed face?” Well, you’re not alone! Bulldogs have flat faces, and there’s a history behind their squished snouts to help prevent injury during bullbaiting. The short faces all come down to selective breeding, where humans have, over time, developed a taste for and bred that distinct crunched-up look.

Studies prove that genetics and chromosomal regions influence this breed’s distinctive punched-in appearance, which we will discuss more below.

The same physical traits that make them so lovable also contribute to breathing difficulties and other complications. Yet, regardless of these challenges, breed owners find their unique personalities and loyalty more than compensate for the extra care required. All 22 different types of Bulldogs.

History of the Brachycephalic (Flat) Faces In Bulldogs

Side view of Bulldog face yellow background

The history of brachycephalic breeds, such as the Bulldog, is deeply intertwined with the evolution of the ancient Molossus breed, a lineage that profoundly influenced the development of many modern dog breeds. This journey from the Molossus to the modern Bulldog helps explain the distinctive physical features of the breed, particularly their wrinkles.

Ancient Molossus: The Origin

The Molossus, an ancient breed used by the Molossian tribe of Epirus, was a formidable livestock guardian and later a war dog for the Romans. These dogs were known for their powerful jaws and robust build. They were the ancestors of many true mastiffs we know today, like the Rottweiler, renowned for their strong jaws.

Arrival in Britain and Evolution into Bull-Baiting Dogs

These Molossus dogs eventually made their way to Britain, where they underwent significant transformations. The need for a powerful, resilient dog for sports like bull-baiting led to the breeding of smaller yet still muscular and jaw-strong dogs known as the Old English Bulldog. 

These dogs were designed to have wide and powerful mouths, enabling them to firmly latch onto bulls, bears, and other large animals, a trait referred to historically as the ability to “lock their jaws.”

Victorian Era: The Shift to Companion Breeds

In Victorian times, a new era of dog breeding began, focusing on breeding dogs for more extreme shapes and sizes and emphasizing pedigrees. This era marked a significant shift for the Old English Bulldog, transitioning it from a sporting breed to a companion breed. Selective breeding increasingly favored a shorter and shorter muzzle, leading to the highly brachycephalic (short-faced) breed we recognize today.

Development of Flat Faces

The Bulldog’s characteristic wrinkles are a direct result of this selective breeding for brachycephaly. The shortened facial structure resulted in a “smooshed-in” nose and excess skin, which formed the distinctive folds and wrinkles. This feature was not only aesthetically pleasing but also practical; in their ancestral role as combat dogs, loose skin could be advantageous, allowing the dog to twist and turn when grabbed without sustaining major injuries to muscles or arteries.

Influence of Neoteny

Another factor in the breeding of Bulldogs was neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal. This concept explains the appeal of Bulldogs’ large eyes and short noses, which mimic the facial structure of human babies. Studies have shown that this neotenous appearance is a significant factor in their popularity as pets, as humans are naturally drawn to these child-like features.

In other words, one reason we breed Bulldogs with short muzzles is because they look more like babies.

But this breed’s history has not been without challenges, especially since breeding for looks can be pretty problematic. Countless veterinarians have called out this breed and have stated in a survey of their perspectives that they worry about the breed’s quality of like.

Because of this, consulted vets discourage their continued breeding. But don’t worry. We truthfully discuss the ethics behind this breed in the following sections. 

The Science of Squished Snouts

Bulldog with very flat face standing

Get ready for a snout-nosedive into the world of this breed and their uniquely flat faces. You’re about to find out why these dogs look like they’ve run face-first into a wall — though, of course, they haven’t!

Genetic Foundations

But let’s break down the science part. These dogs are brachycephalic – a fancy term for critters with short noses and flat faces. This trait comes from a mutation in the DNA that controls skull development, which breeders have perpetuated due to aesthetics. For a visual, imagine squeezing the front of a plush toy – that’s generations of breeding in action!

The genetic traits that result in a shorter bone structure in the face are known as brachycephaly. This genetic condition affects the growth of the nasal bone and the upper jaw, leading to that smushed appearance most can’t help but find adorably cute.

Specifically, alterations in the SMOC2 gene have been linked to a shortened muzzle, with over 92% of affected dogs having the alterations. To be extra nerdy, the repeat expansion in the RUNX2 gene and BMP3 and CFA5 gene variations are also responsible for canine brachycephaly.  

Selective Breeding History

Now, how did this trait become so prominent? Initially, shorter muzzles meant better grip and breathing while holding on to their opponent during bull baiting. Over time, this characteristic was enhanced through careful selection, creating the lovable flat faces we see today.

 Remember, though, these breeding choices did more than just give them their signature look. They also contributed to health issues like brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, a condition not so humorous for the pooches themselves.

Anatomy of Flat Faces in Bulldogs: Understanding Brachycephaly

Bulldogs are one of the most recognizable breeds due to their distinct flat faces, a feature known as brachycephaly, but you will see the same feature in the French Bulldog. It does also exist in dogs like Pugs, however, they don’t share the same history as the Bulldog. This trait sets them apart from mesocephalic (medium-faced) and dolichocephalic (long-faced) breeds. Understanding the anatomy of these flat faces in Bulldogs provides insight into both their unique appearance and the health challenges they face.

Brachycephaly Explained

Brachycephaly refers to a skull shape where the breadth is almost equal to the length, leading to a shortened facial structure. This characteristic is the result of selective breeding practices aimed at enhancing certain physical traits for aesthetic reasons. In Bulldogs, the brachycephalic skull shape results in a distinctly flat face with a broad, short skull. This contrasts with:

  • Mesocephaly: Seen in breeds like Labradors or German Shepherds, where the skull is of medium length, offering a balance between the facial proportions of brachycephalic and dolichocephalic breeds.
  • Dolichocephaly: Characteristic of breeds like Greyhounds or Collies, with long, narrow heads and elongated noses.

Impact of Brachycephaly on Bulldog Anatomy

The brachycephalic skull shape of Bulldogs significantly impacts their facial anatomy:

  1. Shortened Muzzle: The most noticeable feature is the shortened muzzle, which compresses the nasal passages and mouth, leading to smaller nostrils and a crowded oral cavity.
  2. Protruding Eyes: The skull’s structure often leads to protruding eyes, a condition known as exophthalmos. This makes Bulldogs more prone to eye problems due to less protection and greater exposure.
  3. Dental Issues: The shortened jaw can lead to dental crowding, misalignment, and increased risk of dental diseases due to the overlap of teeth in a smaller space.
  4. Skin Folds: The shortened skull results in excess skin, leading to characteristic wrinkles. These folds can harbor bacteria and yeast, requiring regular cleaning to prevent infections.

This Breed’s Breathing Battles

These canines often struggle with their breathing due to their unique facial structure. It’s like snorkeling with a straw — possible, but not exactly comfortable. So, let’s dive in and see what’s really going on behind those squishy faces.

Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome

Imagine trying to breathe through a pillow. Sounds tough, right? Well, that’s kind of what this breed experiences with Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome (BOAS). This condition is a mouthful to say and a handful to deal with. 

BOAS has two main abnormalities in the upper airway, one being stenotic nares, which are abnormally narrow nostrils.  And then, there’s the elongated soft palate, which is like having a tongue that’s a size too big for your mouth — it can flop over and block the windpipe, big time! No wonder these pups always sound like they’re snorting like a pig.

Other Health Implications

Okay, so these breathing issues aren’t exactly a walk in the park, but there’s more. 

1. Everted laryngeal saccules

They can also develop everted laryngeal saccules, which is like having tiny balloons in their throat that inflate when they should deflate. Not exactly the party trick you’d want. 

2. Heat Stroke 

These dogs can have a rough time cooling down after a game of fetch, and really, any strenuous exercise might leave them huffing and puffing more than usual for a normal dog. It’s crucial to keep an eye on your dog to ensure they’re breathing okay, especially on hot days or during a workout session that would make even a couch potato sweat.

3. Brachycephalic Ocular Syndrome

Your pooche’s eyes might pull at your heartstrings, but did you know those big peepers can lead to some issues? Brachycephalic Ocular Syndrome refers to the eye problems these pooches can face. Just picture trying to keep your eyes moist in a windstorm with only half an eyelid — quite the challenge.

4. Surgical Challenges

Brachycephalic dogs may face increased risks during surgical procedures due to their respiratory and anatomical challenges. Special care is needed when administering anesthesia.

Daily Life With a Flat Face

Having a flat face isn’t just a unique look. It directly affects their daily routines. From snacking on kibble to napping on the couch, your canine’s short muzzle shapes its everyday experiences.

Eating and Drinking

When you pour food into this dog’s bowl, you might notice it’s a messy affair. This breed’s flat faces mean they can’t pick up food or lap water easily, leading to a lot of splashing and spilling. Use shallow bowls to make mealtimes less of a dive-and-search operation for your furry friend.

Sleeping Issues

Ever heard a freight train rumbling through your living room at night? That’s probably just your dog snoring. Their flat faces can make breathing harder, especially when they’re lying down, and that means noisy nights. They have also been shown to have sleep apnea (breathing stops at night). Invest in a comfortable, supportive bed to help ease their breathing.

Exercise & Heat Considerations

Feeling like a workout coach to your Bulldog? Remember, they are not the best athletes due to their flat faces. Breathing can be a chore, and they can quickly overheat. Keep exercise light and fun, and frequent water breaks are a must. 

Caring for Your Flat-Faced Buddy

When you’ve got a dog with a face as flat as a pancake, you’re in for a world of snorts and snuffles! Keeping your flat-faced companion happy and healthy requires a bit more know-how and a couple of extra gadgets.

1. Veterinary Check-Ups

 It’s essential to keep up with your pup’s vet appointments. These pups can have many issues, from breathing difficulties to dental problems, thanks to their squished mugs. A vet can help you monitor your buddy’s health and catch any issues early on.

  • Breathing Assessments: Given their narrow airways, having your vet regularly check their breathing is a good idea.
  • Eye and Skin Care: Those adorable wrinkles can harbor bacteria, so you’ll want your vet to examine their skin folds and eyes during each visit.
  • Dental Checkups: Dental checkups are particularly important for them due to their crowded teeth that increase the risk for dental diseases. 

2. Special Equipment and Accessories

Harness Over Collar: Swap out a collar for a harness to prevent pressure on your dog’s throat and help ease their breathing. Look for a broad-chested harness to distribute pressure evenly.

Bowls Designed for Flat Faces: Your buddy’s face shape can make eating and drinking a challenge, so consider getting specially designed bowls.

  • Elevated bowls: These can help reduce the strain on their neck and also aid digestion.
  • Shallow bowls: They allow easier access to food without the need for squishing their face in too deep.

The Controversy Corner

When you look at this breed, it’s hard not to notice their distinctly flat faces. But there’s heated debate about the breeding practices that accentuate these features. Let’s nose-dive into the details.

Ethical Breeding Practices

Your beloved dog’s smushed mug might be cute, but it comes at a price. Breeding for extreme physical traits, particularly flat faces (scientifically known as “brachycephaly”), has raised significant welfare concerns. Issues like respiratory problems often leave these pups panting. Critics question if prioritizing appearance over health is fair to Fido.

In fact, a study was done to understand why people understand the welfare problems these dogs face and still get them. It found that the “baby schema effect,” which just means they look cute in a puppy way, and the normalization of their breathing issues contributed to people still getting a struggling breed.

The ethical challenges surrounding this breed are so severe that some breed proponents argue that the dogs should only be adopted, not bred. 

Changing Breed Standards

Once upon a time, Bulldogs had slightly longer snouts. But as trends shifted, breeders started favoring the flat-faced look. This has spurred a conversation about revising breed standards to favor healthier, longer-nosed Bulldogs. Imagine a future where Bulldogs actually breathe easy.

New Bulldog Breeds With Longer Noses

And now, for a breath of fresh air! Enter new dogs sporting longer noses. These pups, the Retro Bulldogs, are bred to give you the Bulldog vibe with fewer health issues. Talk about a win-win! Keep an eye out for these new kids on the block.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Curious about those adorable faces? You’re in good company! Let’s unpack some squished-nose mysteries together.

How come Bulldogs have squishy faces?

Well, these canines flaunt that squishy nose because they’re born with a condition known as brachycephaly. It makes their face flat and gives them all that character.

What’s the deal with all the snorting and wheezing in Bulldogs?

Those trademark Bulldog sounds, like snorting and wheezing, happen because their flat faces mean narrower airways. This can make regular breathing a bit more, let’s say, melodious.

So, what’s the backstory on Bulldogs getting their shortened muzzles?

The smushed muzzle is actually the result of selective breeding over centuries. Humans preferred the look, and so it became a defining feature.

Why did Bulldogs get the short end of the snout stick?

Bulldogs were bred to have short snouts because, back in the day, it helped them latch onto their “opponents” without blocking their breathing. These days, it’s mostly just for looks.

Did ancient Bulldogs have such a short nose?

If you hopped in a time machine, you’d likely see that ancient Bulldogs didn’t have as flat a face. They’ve become progressively more squished-nosed over time, courtesy of human breeding preferences.

Did somebody breed Bulldogs that way, or did the short face come up on its own?

Nope, Bulldogs didn’t just decide to go flat-faced on their own. They were carefully bred this way for specific jobs and aesthetics, relying on humans to shape their unique appearance.

Final Thoughts

You’ve seen those adorable pups, right? With their squished, flat faces that seem practically made for memes. Ever wonder why they look like they’ve run face-first into a wall? It’s not because of a comical mishap, but it’s the result of selective breeding for these brachycephalic traits.

But, honestly, their flat faces have a lot more to do with human preferences than any practical reason nowadays. You see, those cute snouts and big eyes trigger the same ‘aww’ response we have for human babies. Totally cute, but with Bulldogs, the flat face is no walk in the park. They can have all sorts of breathing issues, from snorting to serious conditions like brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, which sounds about as fun as a pop quiz in math class.

So, next time you’re swooning over a Bulldog’s face, just remember: it’s all because of generations of humans going, “Oh my gosh, so cute!” But don’t forget, those adorable faces do come with a cost with all the breathing issues, and I’m not just talking about vet bills!

Tamsin de la Harpe

Tamsin de la Harpe, with a lively spirit and 15 years of experience in dog training and behavior, brings a unique flair to the team. Based in South Africa, she is deeply engaged in rehabilitating dogs, focusing on their mental and nutritional health. Tamsin's approach to dog behavior is hands-on and heartfelt, shaped by her life with her own dogs and horses. Her journey in canine behavior is ongoing, as she continues advanced studies in this field.

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