Strength in numbers: tackling poor health and welfare together

Images of flat-faced dogs seem to be everywhere – from greetings cards to TV adverts, pictured with the latest celebrity owners in the press, on social media and even mobile banking apps. Whether mass media merely reflects, rather than shapes, our reality is up for debate, but feedback from vets makes it clear that the ubiquity of these ‘cute’ images is playing an active role in driving the public appeal of brachycephalic breeds.

Earlier this year, in BVA’s Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey, we asked almost 700 members from across the UK what they believe are the main reasons why their clients chose to own brachycephalic pets. Worryingly, almost half of the vets surveyed (49 percent) mentioned the high profile of these animals on social media and across brand merchandising and advertising as a key influencing factor.

This follows hard on the heels of a significant rise in BVA members’ level of concern regarding conformational deformities and pedigree breeding, particularly of brachycephalic breeds such as Pugs and French bulldogs; with nearly half (45 percent) of companion animal vets surveyed citing a concern about conformational deformities and pedigree breeding among the three welfare issues that concern them most – more than double the number who expressed this concern two years ago.

“All of this makes it more important than ever for the veterinary profession to take a firm stand against the irresponsible use of animals in advertising.”

Six months ago, I wrote here about the scope of this problem and highlighted what the BVA is doing to raise awareness about the serious health and welfare issues faced by brachycephalic breeds. The article urged all businesses, including veterinary practices, to avoid using images of flat-faced dogs in any promotional work or on social media, to avoid mixed messages for clients and the wider public between what they are being told by vets and VNs in practice and what they were seeing in practice communications.

Since then BVA has continued working hard to further highlight the issue, specifically the use of flat-faced breeds in the media. We’ve written to major retailers and high-street brands who use brachycephalic breeds in their advertising, asking them to consider the ‘normalisation’ or even encouragement of these animal health and welfare problems through use in their communications. We’ve had a positive response with brands such as Comic Relief pledging to avoid use of brachycephalic breeds in future.

We are going to keep sending these letters, but the scale of the problem necessitates collective effort for lasting impact. It’s important that individual voices push back against use of flat-faced breeds in marketing, and voices of the veterinary team carry more weight than most.

A case in point is the recent success of Veterinary Voices, a Facebook group set up and run by vets, which has had some major successes challenging brands such as Costa Coffee and Heinz Beans over their use of pugs on social media. The dozens of comments from individual vets on companies’ online communications and social media platforms, outlining the health problems of flat-faced breeds, clearly demonstrates to the brands the strength of feeling on this issue and effectively counter the ‘cute’ effect for members of the public viewing them. We followed up on the direct action of these vets with letters from BVA president and officer team, and Costa, Heinz and Halifax have since apologised and pledged to avoid using brachycephalic animals in future campaigns.

These seemingly small victories offer hope for greater and long-lasting change. That is why we believe that it is important for vets to utilise their spheres of influence both online and offline. When you see images of brachycephalic animals on social media, for instance, you can make a real impact by adding a comment about why the image is problematic, including reference to your role as a vet, and also by directly messaging the brand’s main Facebook page or Twitter account.

We’ll continue to support you with press releases and media interviews, but hearing from individual vets really has an impact on these brands so it’s vital that your voices are heard. We’ll also be providing a letter template for those who would like to approach brands via email.

While the veterinary profession is relatively small, its reach is significant and its role is critical to the health and welfare of not only animals, but the rest of society too. We’re really pleased to see so many members of the profession speaking out on behalf of the animals that we swear an oath to protect.

For more information visit www.bva.co.uk

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