Suffering is soooo cute!
Suffering is soooo cute! cynoclub/Getty Images

On Thanksgiving day, while much of America was either avoiding politics around the table or leaning into it, a very good boy (sorry) named Thor was cleaning up at the National Dog Show in Philadelphia.

Thor—who, according to the Washington Post, is an English bulldog with an "adorable waddle and Winston Churchill looks"—won Best in Show at the nation's second-most prestigious dog pageant, beating out 1,900 other competitors.

While I would like to issue a hearty congratulations to Thor (formal name: GCHG Diamond Gold Majesu Pisko Bulls), there's also something a little disturbing about this victory, because Thor, like all bulldogs, is basically a cuddly sack of intentionally created genetic disorders and if there were any justice in this world, he and his kind would not exist.

Like many purebred dogs, Thor has been selectively bred for maximum cuteness to humans, but this comes at major cost to Thor himself. Bulldogs are brachycephalic, which means "short-muzzled," and like all brachycephalic dogs, cats, and rabbits (yes, they do exist), these dogs have severe respiratory problems—so severe, in fact, that they are more likely to die on airplanes than dogs that haven't been intentionally bred for short, stubby faces.

Breathing is so difficult for these dogs, in fact, that the British Veterinary Association (BVA) started an awareness campaign to alert the public about what these dogs go through. “Many of these ‘cute’ pets will struggle with serious and often life-limiting health problems," said BVA President John Fishwick. "Whilst many people perceive the squashed wrinkly faces of flat-faced dogs as appealing, in reality, dogs with short muzzles can struggle to breathe.”

And it's not just breathing that's a problem. Bulldogs, both French and English, have a bevy of health problems including but not limited to: overheating, allergies, eczema, acne, arthritis, degenerative spine disease, hip dysplasia, joint issues, idiopathic head tremors, heart disease, cherry eye (don't google it), and the highest rates of cancer of any other dog breed. Their skin problems are so severe that their owners are advised to clean their skin folds every day. Their hips are so narrow that they are unable to conceive or birth puppies naturally, and, as if that weren't bad enough, digestive problems mean their farts smell like a hot blend of rotten eggs and death. Cute!

Despite these massive health problems—which cause dogs like Thor major discomfort and leave their owners with major vet bills—these dogs are becoming more and more popular. In 2018, English bulldogs were the fifth most popular AKC-registered breed in the U.S. (following French bulldogs at number 4, which are even more abominable than their English cousins). So why are these man-made freak shows getting more popular? Well, to answer that question, I turned to one of the world's foremost experts in humans' strange relationships with animals, a man I like to call "Dad."

Hal Herzog, the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, has been studying why some dog breeds boom in popularity and others wane in popularity for decades. In a study examining AKC registration data from 1926 to 2005 (a data set of nearly 54 million), he and his co-authors found that dog breed popularity is often random. With some notable exceptions (for instance, the spike in Dalmation popularity after 101 Dalmations came out), most dog breeds become popular for the same reason other trends like baby names get popular: They just do. Dog breed popularity is, in other words, a form of social contagion.

Regardless of why some dog breeds get popular and others don't, researchers have found that dog breeds that get popular quickly tend to suffer from more genetic disorders that those that don't. Why might this be? Are people actually seeking out dogs predisposed to suffer?

One study, out of Denmark, examined this very question, and the researchers found that the owners of fucked-up dog breeds like bulldogs and Chihuahuas had a greater attachment to those dogs than the owners of less fucked-up dog breeds like Cairn Terriers. The authors wrote: "It seems plausible to suggest that dog breeds with the kinds of extreme features observed in this study may elicit a more distinctive kind of attachment from their owners than more ‘normal’ and healthy dogs, partly because of the requirements for extra care. Due to its extremely tiny and fragile body, for example, the Chihuahua likely evokes high levels of caregiving behavior, which is also indicated in this study by the high proportion of owners of Chihuahuas (70%) who 'would do almost anything to take care of my dog.'"

(My dad, on the phone, reminded me of a picture book he has called Feel Better Little Buddy: Animals with Casts, which is exactly what it sounds like. His hypothesis is that people are often attracted to animals that look like they need our care.)

But what comes first, the messed up genetics or the boost in popularity? That we don't really know. It's possible that people are more drawn to dogs with big, bulging, baby-like eyes and smushed snouts, but it's also possible that health effects come after spikes in popularity. The more popular a dog is, the more likely you are to see in-breeding, which, again, results in more genetic deformities.

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The good news is, there does not seem to be a correlation between winning dog shows and spikes in breed popularity. This goes against conventional wisdom: Of course champion dogs mean more puppies of that breed the next year! But AKC registration data shows it's just not true.

Take, for instance, labradors. Labs rarely win Westminster and or the National Dog Show, and yet they've been the most popular pure-bred dog in the U.S. for decades. (Interestingly, according to Herzog—the other one—the more slowly a dog climbs in popularity rankings, the more likely it is to remain popular for long stretches of time, and the faster a breed spikes in popularity, the faster it declines in popularity, too.)

So will we see a rash of baby Thors next year thanks to this one dog's victory in Philly? Unlikely. We may see a rash of farting, snorting, long-suffering bulldog puppies, but Thor won't have as much to do with it as plain old social contagion. And in the meantime, I can only hope Thor's blue ribbon win dulls the pain of existing.