Tragedy Reveals Different Needs for Different Breeds
We love our pets. They’re family members. And the dozen or so years most of us get with our canine loved ones fly by too quickly. But when one dies prematurely and unexpectedly, it’s a whole other level of painful and tragic.
No one understands this more than a local Montecito family, who brought their beloved and healthy three-year-old French Bulldog, Otis, along with his two labradoodle sisters, to the groomer for a wash last Wednesday, only to receive an unexpected call two hours later from the groomer that Otis had suddenly and unexpectedly passed.
In an attempt to understand what happened, I spoke with members of the the dog’s family, the veterinarian present at Montecito Veterinary Hospital where Otis, already dead, was rushed by the groomer/salon owner, and the groomer himself. While it’s impossible for us to decipher exactly what happened in the approximately two hours between the time the “father” dropped Otis off at the grooming salon and Otis ending up at Montecito Veterinary Hospital with a temperature of 110 degrees and deceased, this story is a cautionary tale for anyone who spends considerable time around special breeds.
By all accounts, it was a normal, busy day inside the salon with a dozen or so dogs “free ranging” around the approximately 200 square foot space, which, according to Otis’s mother, caused the father, her husband, some concern.
“He feels so responsible for not listening to his intuition. When he got there, he said there were 10 to 15 dogs. He said it was pure chaos. So he said to the groomer, ‘Let me just come back some other time,’ even though we had an appointment. But the groomer said, ‘No, it’s fine. Just leave him here. This is how it is.’ He literally acted like, ‘No worries. This is how I do it,’” Otis’s father recounted.
And, according to the groomer, this is how he’s been doing it for the 20 years he’s been in business, and in his opinion, that environment is a big part of the salon’s appeal. “The dogs get to ‘free range,’” he explained. “At any given time there could be a dozen dogs roaming around the shop, waiting to be groomed… This allows the dogs to relax and feel mellow and enjoy their time here.”
By all accounts, within 90 minutes to two hours of Otis’s visit to the salon he was found unconscious inside the double-size family cage in which he was placed, along with his two labradoodle sisters, a sort of “transition place” where the dogs are kept between being washed and being dried.
“The cages are simply in room temperature air,” said the groomer. “There is never hot air blown on any of the dogs inside the cages.” And by all accounts this too was the finding of the City Animal Inspector who visited the salon after Otis’s death. According to the groomer, the City Animal Inspector issued his salon a “clean bill of operation.”
The groomer claims that, the moment they saw that something was wrong with Otis he picked up Otis’ body and rushed to Montecito Veterinary Hospital where Dr. Mary Waikart was working. The groomer says he then immediately rushed back to his salon in order to retrieve the family’s contact information so that the vet and he could contact them.
The family, obviously and understandably shocked and devastated, do not recall, upon hearing the news that their beloved three-year-old Frenchie had passed, that the groomer ever apologized or took responsibility for the tragedy.
The groomer has a different recollection. “The first words out of my mouth when I told them Otis had passed was that I was so so sorry and so so sad that this happened at all and that it happened on my time. But there’s a difference between being sorry something happened and being sorry because you caused it. And I do not believe that we did anything to cause Otis’s death.”
The groomer says that he’s never before had a dog die while under his care as a groomer. And that many of his canine clients, over the years, have been French Bulldogs.
So what then did cause an otherwise “healthy” three-year-old French Bulldog to perish within two hours of being dropped off at the groomer, and is this common? Apparently, it’s more common than one might think.
A quick internet search of “dog deaths during grooming” reveals that it is surprisingly common. In 2018 the Associated Press ran a story claiming that over the past decade, 47 dogs had died during or within days of grooming at PetSmart stores across the country. The nine-month investigation by NJ Advance Media was based on reports by PetSmart customers in 14 states and found that 25 different breeds had died. According to the report, 20 of the 47 deaths happened to brachycephalic dogs — those with short noses and smushed faces, such as French Bulldogs, English Bulldogs, and similar breeds that can have trouble breathing, especially in stressful or hot environments.
I asked Dr. Waikart, the doctor on call at Montecito Veterinary Hospital when Otis was rushed in, why this might have happened to Otis and why it happens so often generally. And while Waikart had been instructed by her hospital’s parent company not to talk on the record about this particular case, she nonetheless felt it was important to help educate the community on this subject.
“I think it’s important to talk about this, so this doesn’t happen to another dog ever if possible, which it will. French Bulldogs are extraordinarily common in our community and many people don’t seem to have the awareness of how sensitive they are.”
“As a veterinarian, if you come in with a brachycephalic breed puppy or dog, and I’ve never seen you before, the first thing I talk to you about is they must not overheat… It is not common knowledge even to people who have them. Many don’t seem to understand how delicate they are, and how sensitive they are. Not just to heat. It can happen, and very likely in this particular case was a combination of not that it was necessarily too hot, but the dog was too excited.”
According to Dr. Waikart, French Bulldogs probably shouldn’t be allowed to go to any situation, groomer, doggy daycare, those types of places, if they’re not being 100% eagle-eye watched.
“That’s my best advice to anyone who owns them, regardless of the temperature, but temperature’s going to make it a thousand times worse, because they don’t effectively cool themselves. The way that they’re shaped – we love – and we think is so cute and they’re snoring or snorting, that’s actually a very large indicator that they’re not breathing appropriately. They’re not capable on a good day of breathing like a normal dog. So, when you put them in any stressful or warm or humid environment, especially a crowded situation. Crowded is really bad… Anyone in this business would know this… anyone who’s responsible for watching your dog would’ve seen signs if the pet was being appropriately monitored.”
So was Otis being appropriately monitored and if not, why not? According to the groomer, “The cages we put the dogs in while transitioning between washing and drying are within eyesight of where we sit and work, but not necessarily within earshot because the dryers are loud and can drown out some of the sounds. I could see the front of Otis’s cage, but if he had moved to the back of the cage to lay down, which is common, I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to see him.”
“It can happen very fast,” says Dr. Waikart. “Usually, absolute fastest is 15 minutes… in a hot car it can happen 15-20 minutes tops. I mean, they’ll start having absolutely horrible breathing problems within that first 15 minutes, and then they can die within 15 to 20 minutes… In what they’re describing of their environment, because it wasn’t hot, it would’ve had to have been that excitement that all those dogs were running around in front of his face… And then he swells and the way they cool themselves down is through panting and they’re mechanically not made to be able to effectively reduce their heat. So, it’s kind of like a baby, where they can’t thermoregulate, so once the temperature starts to go up, it just snowballs.”
Dr. Waikart says this is all too common. “I’ve seen Bulldogs walking down State Street at 65 degrees during Fiesta in August when it’s cloudy, not sunny, 65-degree weather, and just from the excitement they overheat and die of heatstroke. And they’re just out walking. It’s a really horrible thing that tells you though that some families also are not aware of how sensitive they are. They’re just not aware that because they’re cute and they sound cute, that snoring and the way that they breathe, people love that.”
That quality that makes us fall in love with brachycephalic breeds is reportedly one of the reasons that just this past week, Norway outlawed the breeding of Bulldogs (not French Bulldogs) because they said there’s not a healthy example of a Bulldog in the country.
“When I bought this dog, I was uneducated to what it takes to bring a Bulldog into this world,” says Otis’s mother. “I had an English Bulldog for 16 years, she was the love of my life and died. Two years later I got Otis. But, my eyes are open now to the pain and suffering that these Bulldogs go through.”
Dr. Waikart wants people who already have French Bulldogs or other brachycephalic breeds to be comforted by knowing that there are things that can be done for their respiratorily challenged pups. “Even if your pet is already not breathing well on a good day and you’re worried about what may happen, there are preventative surgeries one can do to help them. You can open up their nose. You can open up their airway so [the constriction] doesn’t happen and make it much less likely for it to happen. And we just happen to have a surgeon at Advanced Veterinary Specialists in Santa Barbara whose expertise is Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome. If you’re interested, call Dr. Ludwig at AVS to discuss this option.
Otis’s mother says that Otis did, in fact, have this procedure when he was a year old, but Dr. Waikart nonetheless insists that the procedure has successfully helped many of her patients.
“We’re not in the business of trying to ruin anybody’s life, or to make anybody look horrible,” says the family’s daughter. So, I really don’t want it to be something where it’s like, I’m attacking this person specifically. It’s just I want people to make sure that their dogs are safe… if there were changes made and they felt there were things they could do to avoid [these kinds of problems in the future], that would be good.”
I asked the groomer if he plans to rethink any of his operating procedures in light of this tragedy and he said, “Yes, I will no longer put a Frenchie or any other brachycephalic breed in a cage.”
We at the Montecito Journal are so sorry for the loss of Otis, and hope this article provides helpful information so this problem is not repeated. If you had a child with a nut allergy, you’d protect your child from nuts, but would also want anyone around your child to be familiar with your kid’s critical health idiosyncrasies. Special dog breeds also have unique health needs. If you have one of these breeds, everyone handling it should be aware of them. And certainly, any breeder of animals with such layers of complexity should be responsible for educating those who adopt these animals. Tags indicating critical health needs wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
For further resources on brachycephalic breeds and their recommended care, Dr. Waikart suggests that you go to Veterinarypartner.com and search heatstroke. Also search B-R-A-C-H-Y-C-E-P-H-A-L-I-C Syndrome.