New research suggests that appearance and emotional attachment override breed health concerns

Brachycephalic cat

Here at International Cat Care, we continue to raise awareness of the welfare issues which affect some breeds of pedigree cats. These include breeds such as the Munchkin, Manx, Scottish Fold, and very flat-faced Persian and Exotic breeds, all of which can suffer from a range of health and welfare problems because of their physical characteristics. We humans like to have different breeds to choose from and to associate ourselves with, but would people purchase these breeds if they understood the potential problems for the individual cats, or are there other reasons, emotional or logical, which over-ride this knowledge in our choices?

New research

A recent study by Peter Sandøe and colleagues* in Denmark has shed some light on this conundrum in dogs, which could help us understand the situation in cats. The research team sent out surveys to randomly selected owners of French Bulldogs, Chihuahuas and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (CKCS), all of which are known to have high levels of inherited diseases and suffer from welfare problems. Owners of Cairn Terriers, which do not have a higher level of disease compared to the general dog population, were also included in the survey as a comparison.

Appearance over health

The results of the study show that owners of Chihuahuas and French Bulldogs were not motivated by breed health when choosing a dog. These owners were more interested in the dog’s distinctive appearance and personality, as well as how easy it was to find and obtain a dog, when choosing a breed. Owners of CKCS were partly interested in the health of the breed when choosing the dog, but were also motivated the dog’s distinctive appearance. In contrast, owners of Cairn Terriers were mainly concerned with breed characteristics such as health when getting a dog.

This suggests that even if prospective owners of these welfare-compromised breeds are made aware of their poor health, this may not deter them from obtaining a dog of this breed. It seems therefore that some people are more driven by the appearance of the dog, and how easy it is to obtain one, than the dog’s health and welfare.

Furthermore, the researchers found that experiencing health and welfare problems in their Chihuahuas and CKCS (but not French Bulldogs) did not reduce the owners’ intent of acquiring the same breeds again, suggesting that even experiencing the health and welfare problems of these breeds first hand is not enough to deter owners from acquiring the same breed again.

Stronger emotional attachment

Finally, the higher the level of health and behaviour problems experienced by Chihuahuas and CKCS (but again, not French Bulldogs), the stronger the emotional attachment to them reported by their owners. The need to be caregivers has been proposed to explain emotional attachment to pets; therefore, a higher level of caregiving needed by animals suffering from health problems could lead higher level of emotional attachment forming.

All owners of Chihuahuas, French Bulldogs and CKCSs were more emotionally attached to their dogs than owners of Cairn Terriers. Furthermore, owners who were more interested in the dog’s distinctive appearance when choosing the breed showed higher levels of emotional attachment to their dogs.

Infant-like appearance

The appearance of Chihuahuas, French Bulldogs and CKCSs has been likened to that of an infant human – for example a large forehead, large eyes and bulging cheeks. This appearance may elicit innate feelings of nurturing and caregiving in humans, which may lead to a higher level of emotional attachment to these types of dogs. Owners who specifically choose a breed based on this infantile look may be more likely to become attached to them for this reason.

What does this mean for cats?

The results of this research provide support for why some people choose welfare-compromised breeds of cats. Breeds such as the Scottish Fold, Persian and Exotic Short/Longhair are also thought to resemble human infants due to their round heads, large eyes and flat noses, which could lead to parental feelings of nurturing, caregiving and emotional attachment.

It also suggests that explaining the health problems associated with these breeds to prospective owners may not be enough to deter them from obtaining one. Experiencing these problems first hand may also not be enough to stop owners from getting the breed again, and could even lead to stronger feelings of attachment, resulting in the continued support and demand for the breeding of these cats.

It is encouraging that owners of at least one welfare-compromised breed, the French Bulldog, were deterred by experiencing the health problems of the dogs first hand. However, this study has highlighted the hurdles we may face in opposing cat breeds which are detrimental to welfare.

International Cat Care will fight for the welfare of cats

Nonetheless, International Cat Care, along with numerous other veterinary and welfare organisations, will continue to spread the message that there are a huge number of cats condemned to a lifetime of suffering because of continued support for these detrimental breeds. Cats are one of the best and most beautifully naturally designed animals, but we have created these health problems in them through selective breeding purely based on looks and human preference. Our stance is that we should never deliberately breed cats for any feature that impairs their welfare. If there is even the smallest chance that having a particular ‘look’ causes problems, then we should not be accepting of the breed, and all of us should be encouraging cat lovers everywhere to speak out against such breeding, and strongly urging people not to buy these cats.


* Sandøe P, Kondrup SV, Bennett PC, Forkman B, Meyer I, Proschowsky HF, Serpell JA, Lund TB. Why do people buy dogs with potential welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inherited disease? A representative study of Danish owners of four small dog breeds. PloS one. 2017 Feb 24;12(2):e0172091.

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