In the 2022 rankings of the American Kennel Club, the French bulldog has taken over the top spot as the most popular dog in the United States, surpassing the Labrador retriever, which had held the title for 31 years, in the category of purebred dogs. The French bulldog’s gentle and adorable nature has likely contributed to its popularity.
Adorable in some eyes, deplorable in others, the sturdy, push-faced, perky-eared, world-weary-looking, and distinctively droll French bulldog became the nation’s most prevalent purebred dog last year, the club announced Wednesday. Frenchies ousted Labrador retrievers from the top spot after a record 31 years.
“They’re comical, friendly, loving little dogs,” says French Bull Dog Club of America spokesperson Patty Sosa. She says it is city-friendly, with modest grooming and exercise needs, and “they offer a lot in a small package.”
Yet the Frenchie’s dizzying rise – it wasn’t even a top-75 breed a quarter-century ago – worries its fans, to say nothing of its critics.
The buzzy little bulldogs have been targeted in thefts, including last month’s fatal shooting of a 76-year-old South Carolina breeder and the 2021 shooting of a California dog walker squiring singer Lady Gaga’s pets.
There’s concern that demand, plus the premium that some buyers will pay for “exotic” coat colors and textures, engenders quick-buck breeders and unhealthy dogs. In addition, the breed’s popularity is sharpening the debate over whether there’s anything healthy about propagating dogs prone to breathing, spinal, eye, and skin conditions.
The British Veterinary Association has urged people not to buy flat-faced breeds like Frenchies. The Netherlands has prohibited breeding very short-snouted dogs, and the country’s agriculture minister aims to outlaw even owning them.
“French bulldogs can be a polarizing topic,” says Dr. Carrie Stefaniak, a Glendale, Wisconsin-based veterinarian on the Frenchie club’s health committee.
She has treated French bulldogs with breathing difficulties and stresses that would-be owners need to research breeders and health testing and recognize that problems can be expensive.
But she’s no Frenchie foe. She owns two and has conditioned them to run agility courses and take hilly hikes.
“These dogs can be very fit, can be very active,” Stefaniak said. “They don’t have to be sedentary dogs that can’t breathe.”
The AKC’s popularity rankings cover 200 breeds in the nation’s oldest canine registry. The stats are based on nearly 716,500 puppies and other dogs newly registered last year – about one in every seven of them a Frenchie. Registration is voluntary.
The most rarely owned? English foxhounds.
The rankings don’t count mixed breeds or, for now, Labradoodles, puggles, Morkies, and other popular “designer” hybrids. The AKC’s top 10 were: French bulldogs, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, poodles, bulldogs, Rottweilers, beagles, dachshunds, and German short-haired pointers.
With roots in England and then France, French bulldogs became chic among American elites around the turn of the 20th century, then faded from favor.
That changed rapidly in this century. First, social media and celebrity owners (from Leonardo di Caprio to Megan Thee Stallion to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) gave the dogs fresh exposure. Still more came last year when U.S. TV audiences watched a Frenchie named Winston to take second place at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and win the National Dog Show hosted by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia.
Last year, about 108,000 newly registered French bulldogs surpassed Labs by over 21,000.
As a longtime breeder and a veterinarian, Lori Hunt sees Frenchies as ideal companions but their popularity as “a curse, not a blessing.”
“They’re being very exploited” by unscrupulous breeders, she said. The Westlake, Ohio-based vet has seen plenty of Frenchies with problems but rejects arguments that the breed is inherently unhealthy. Some of her own do canine performance sports.
Some other breeds are prone to ailments ranging from hip dysplasia to cancers, and mixed-breed dogs also can get sick. But recently published research involving about 24,600 dogs in Britain suggested that Frenchies have “very different, and much poorer” health than other canines, mainly due to the foreshortened, wrinkly face that encapsulates the breed’s je ne sais quoi.
With such findings in mind, the British Veterinary Association has said it “strongly recommends” against buying flat-faced dogs and has campaigned to scrub them from ads and even greeting cards.
President Lori Teller says the American Veterinary Medical Association is exploring ways to improve flat-faced dogs’ welfare.
To animal rights and welfare activists, the French bulldog frenzy puts a snorting, panting face on problems with dog breeding in general.
“A lot of the breed characteristics that are bred into these dogs, they’re for looks, not necessarily health and welfare, and Frenchies are probably one of the most exaggerated examples of that,” said Dr. Lorna Grande of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, a professional group affiliated with the Humane Society of the U.S.
“It is a welfare issue. These dogs are suffering,” she says.
The AKC notes that Canine Health Foundation has donated $67 million since 1990 for research and education on many breeds, and the kennel and Frenchie clubs say there have been advances. For example, at a show in January, a new breathing test made its U.S. debut on Frenchies, bulldogs, and pugs.
The AKC says prospective purebred owners should explore breeders’ history and health testing, accept waiting for a puppy, and ask themselves whether they’re prepared for the responsibility.
“Research what goes into owning a dog,” says spokesperson Brandi Hunter Munden, “and take an assessment of your lifestyle to make sure that you’re really making the best decision, not just for you, but for the animal.”