Should we be worried about Handsome Dan?

An article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine describes how bulldogs — the 6th most popular dog breed in the United States — suffer from severe health problems due to the “extreme traits” they are bred to have and that owners find so lovable.

Bulldogs’ wrinkly, flat faces and tiny nostrils make it hard for them to breathe, and their short legs and heavy bodies make it difficult to walk, the Times reported. A 2008 British documentary, “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” and three independent reports published since then have all drawn attention to the health risks faced by the breed, and some critics claim the bulldog can only survive if breeding practices change.

“They aren’t athletic or especially healthy,” Diane Judy, a former bulldog breeder who bred Yale’s current Handsome Dan, told the Times. “Most can’t have sex without help — they’re too short and stocky. Most can’t give birth on their own — their heads are too big. A breed that has trouble doing those two things is, by definition, in trouble.”

Bulldogs haven’t always faced this problem. The name “bulldog” derives from the dogs’ participation in bull-baiting, a popular sport in England in the early 19th century. Bulldogs in a bull-bait would throw themselves at a bull and try to hold on to its nose; the sport was so violent that it was banned in England in 1835.

In that era bulldogs had smaller heads, longer muzzles, leaner bodies and a long tail, the Times reported, and were described in an 1845 book as being “fitted for nothing but ferocity and combat.” That all changed in the mid-19th century, when bulldogs began to be bred as household pets. Their faces were shortened and flattened, their legs got shorter, and rather than being fit and ready to fight, they are now much more likely than other breeds to encounter health difficulties, from ear and eye problems to skin infections and respiratory illnesses.

“We’ve shortened the face of this breed so much that there’s just not enough space for everything to fit,” Dr. William Rosenblad, a canine-tooth expert, told the Times. “The tongue, the palate, it’s all compressed…. The end result of all the compression is that many bulldogs can barely breathe.”

Not only does this lead to respiratory problems, but it also puts bulldogs at risk when they exercise or even just sit in the sun for a long time, since they cannot breathe well enough to cool themselves easily. Even eating is difficult: Handsome Dan’s owners have to be ready to burp him when he eats “because sometimes he’ll take in too much food and air and throw up,” Toddie Getman, who owns the mascot with Christopher Getman ’64, told the Times. The average bulldog lives only slightly longer than six years.

So what’s the solution? Some critics of current bulldog breeding practices believe the standard for the breed should be changed, essentially redefining what characteristics should be valued in a bulldog. The British Kennel Club revised its bulldog standard in 2009, but the American Kennel Club has not followed suit. The dogs remain very popular as “goofy” and “lovable” household pets.

Yale has had 17 live bulldog mascots so far. Handsome Dan XVII turns five years old in March.