An elongated snout, muscular legs, a powerful frame and well-proportioned eyes that don’t bulge out on stalks, the pug perched at the feet of Queen Victoria in a family photograph taken at Balmoral in 1887 looks an altogether different breed to the sorry creatures you might see labouring along a city pavement today.
Once celebrated among high society as the perfect pet, more than a century of intensive breeding has left pugs with grossly distorted features: flattened muzzles enveloped in folds of wrinkles that are prone to infection and leave the dogs with severe respiratory issues; protruding eyes at risk of developing ulcers or sometimes being lost altogether due to an inability to properly blink; and weak, stumpy legs susceptible to buckling under the dog’s increasing weight.
That tightly curled tail, known as the double curve, beloved by some owners, is the result of abnormalities being bred into the spine, including thinner vertebrae, which leaves the pug significantly weaker. As for the renowned pug’s ‘smile’ and lolling tongue, endlessly shared by owners on social media, this is simply the animal struggling to breathe.
A report published by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in May 2022 encapsulated the travails of the modern pug. According to the report, pugs are almost twice as likely to experience one or more health disorders annually compared with other breeds, with the dog roughly 54 times more likely to suffer brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (a condition describing severe breathing difficulties in flat-faced dogs). The current health problems associated with a dog that has boomed in popularity in recent decades (with a fivefold increase in Kennel Club registrations between 2005 to 2017) has led the researchers to conclude that, from a health perspective, pugs can no longer even be considered a ‘typical dog’.
Experts are now calling for urgent action to improve the robustness of the breed. History shows us what a healthy pug can look like, but the question is whether we can ever go back there?
Originally bred in China, pugs arrived in Europe in the 16th century, when they rapidly became the favoured breed of European royalty. William of Orange credited his pug with saving his life by alerting his guards to a night attack on their encampment. Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine, had a favourite pug, Fortune, which she supposedly used to carry secret messages while imprisoned during the French Revolution.
Pugs were as popular among the Victorian upper classes as they are with celebrities on Instagram today. Queen Victoria was a particular fan, owning as many as 38 pugs during her reign and breeding her own litters. The wealthy were often painted with their pugs and a 1745 Hogarth self-portrait entitled ‘The painter and his pug’ gives an idea of how the animal used to look. Hogarth’s beloved pug, Trump, appears in a number of paintings and with his long legs and defined muzzle is a stark example of the breed before humans started to interfere.
According to Dr Dan O’Neill, the author of the latest RVC report, we haven’t yet crossed the Rubicon and with careful breeding can still reverse some of the most extreme changes wrought upon the pug as a result of a human pursuit of canine perfection. “It is perfectly possible to breed a healthy pug,” he insists. O’Neill was a vet for 22 years before establishing a system called VetCompass a decade ago, which uses anonymised clinical information to determine the health of particular breeds.
Among his recent findings is that pugs have a life expectancy of 7.7 years in the UK, compared with an average of 11.2 across all breeds. Breathing difficulties aside, they are also prone to pug dog encephalitis (a severe inflammation of the brain) and are 11 times more likely to suffer dermatitis than other breeds due to their excessively wrinkled skin and shortened muzzles, which means they often cannot clean themselves.
However, O’Neill insists that, given the relatively quick breeding cycle of dogs, if breeders place an increasing emphasis on healthy dogs then we can begin to quickly restore pugs to their original form. “The potential for changing dogs is huge,” he says.
The characteristics that comprise the modern pug started to be bred into the dogs towards the end of the 19th century. Dr Alison Skipper, a clinical vet and veterinary historian who has recently completed a PhD on the history of breed-related disease in pedigree dogs, says the majority of the change took place in the 1890s – encouraged by the judges of dog shows.
At the time the so-called ‘breed standards’ still used by the Kennel Club today to classify different breeds were being established. “If you look at dog show reports from the late 19th century show rings, they make a point of commenting on flat faces,” she says. “That is definitely something they were looking for and deliberately rewarding at that time.”
Bob Lambert, health, welfare and breeder services executive at the Kennel Club, insists that in recent years dog shows have become a positive driver for change. Judges, he says, are trained to prioritise dog health at competitions, which in turn encourages breeders. But, as he admits, of the 180,000 or so pugs in the UK, only one third are registered with the Kennel Club, of which only two per cent will ever go to a dog show.
“The impact of breed standards is actually miniscule on the way breeds look,” he says. “Nowadays there are so many more influences with social media and celebrities.” Before the likes of Gerard Butler, Paris Hilton and Kelly Brook, pugs were associated with many of the luminaries of the 20th century.
Winston Churchill signed off his letters to his wife Clemmie as ‘pug’, and kept one for his daughter. Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson were also great lovers of the dogs. The Sussex estate of Glyndebourne is home to a particularly proud pug dynasty. Gus Christie, 58, the current executive chairman of the estate, says they were first introduced in 1870 by his great, great grandfather, while his grandfather John Christie was also an “avid pug fan”.
Glyndebourne hosted pug dog garden parties for enthusiasts in 1985 and 1995, which one newspaper at the time reported as being ‘so glamorous that it makes Ascot look like a car-boot sale’. Christie recalls one of the highlights of the day was a pug/owner lookalike competition. “Generally the older men or ladies won them and were extremely proud to do so,” he says. Christie, too, has previously kept two black pugs, Ian and Dennis, although they were plagued by health complications.
Both lost eyes – Dennis on spiky grass and Ian in a scrap with his aunt. Christie says after their accidents the dogs used to sit side-by-side like “bookends” so they could both still keep a look-out. Currently he has two pet bulldogs. “I don’t know whether it is possible to breed a healthy pug as they look now,” he says. “They look great and are full of character, but if they aren’t going to last long it seems cruel to keep doing that.”
There is hope, though, for the future of pugs. The recently established International Retro Pug Club is a project between breeders in Sweden and Germany to restore them to their original form. It is already achieving impressive results by breeding pugs subjected to scrupulous health checks – including X-rays of the spine – with Parson Russell terriers. One of the project’s co-founders, 51-year-old Swedish academic Therese Rodin, says already new litters are demonstrating longer legs and noses and better breathing.
They are also improving genetic diversity in an animal which various studies show has become inbred to the extreme. To date, the Kennel Club has resisted calls to permit retro pugs into the showring – a decision Rodin criticises as “old-fashioned” – although she remains hopeful they will in time rescue the breed from the brink. And she insists that by reversing over a century of human misdeeds, the pug can still rise phoenix-like from the ashes.