Leonard’s legacy: We hope one brave dog’s struggle will prevent more suffering
No dog should ever have to fight for breath, let alone chose between letting food or air into their body.
But that’s exactly what poor, sweet Leonard endured every day – all because he was bred to conform to society’s increasing and unknowingly cruel demand for flat-faced dogs.
As a French bulldog, he was what’s known as a brachycephalic breed, meaning he was born with a shorter muzzle and narrower airways than other dogs not genetically engineered to look this way.
Leonard was found on the streets in February as a stray. He was struggling to breathe, with a painfully dry and crusty nose, covered in pressure sores, terribly thin and suffering with a horrible urine infection.
We suspect unscrupulous breeders had been using him to produce unhealthy puppies to sell at exorbitant rates to people unaware of the health problems associated with dogs like them.
Sadly, Leonard’s story is not rare – Blue Cross has seen an influx of dogs like him in recent years.
But the team at our Lewknor rehoming centre in Oxfordshire quickly set about getting him on the road to recovery.
Nyki Lawn, Animal Welfare Assistant, was Leonard’s dedicated carer. She said: “He had a lot of health issues caused by terrible breeding and was struggling to breathe. It was immediately clear that he was going to need a lot of vet intervention. He almost seemed like he was suffocating a lot of the time.”
“He couldn’t breathe through his nose at all,” said Centre Manager, Jenna Martyn. “He could barely eat, because he had to alternate between breathing and chewing and the only way of getting oxygen in was through his mouth. It was always a risk he might choke.
“Leonard would have these bursts of energy, so he wanted to be an energetic dog. And his breathing would just stop that for him because he would have to then just stand there and gasp for breath. Running around in the park chasing a toy, or having fun with friends, is not something Leonard could have done.”
But despite all he had endured – and his continuing struggle to breathe – Leonard was the happiest, most joyful and kind little soul, who immediately stole the hearts of the team caring for him.
Nyki said: “He absolutely loved being at the centre. It makes you think about where he must have come from if kennels seemed so luxurious for him. But he loved it.
“He loved the company, loved pottering around in the reception and would just have the best day, really, all the time – despite how much he was struggling.”
Jenna continued: “It was so important that he came to Blue Cross, as his health conditions were really concerning – and the fact that we were able to offer him somewhere warm and loving to be was just so important. The team are all experts and he needed that first-hand care.”
Leonard, thought to be about seven years old, deserved so much more than what his early life offered, and we were determined to give it to him. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.
Like many dogs like him, his breeding caused what’s known as brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS).
The only way to help him breathe was surgery to widen his nostrils and remove a section of the soft pallet at the back of his mouth. So, after three weeks of love and care from the Lewknor team, he went to our animal hospital in Victoria, central London, for his operation.
But while the surgery was a success, Leonard never recovered and died later that day.
Unfortunately, surgery under anaesthetic carries a greater risk for brachycephalic dogs, who have additional pressure on their hearts due to the lack of oxygen in their bloodstream. And it was just too much for Leonard’s struggling body to cope with.
Jenna said: “Sadly, as so many dogs like Leonard are suffering, BOAS surgery has become quite a routine surgery – but it’s still a major operation and having to put an animal through it is very concerning. We knew there was a risk, but nothing could have prepared me or the team for him not making it.
“When an animal like Leonard passes away for a simple thing that we take for granted every day, to breathe, it’s so painful. It’s still painful now.
“The hospital team were heartbroken, and we were heartbroken. One of the hardest things we have to do in our job is say goodbye. I’ve worked for Blue Cross for 18 years and I can truly say that this is one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had.
“Even though we had him a short period of time, I can't tell you how much I valued having that short window with him because he touched our hearts and he will be with us forever. He gave us so much love and joy. And we were able to obviously give that straight back to him as well.”
Nyki added: “Knowing how happy he was in his final weeks is what we hang on to, really. He was he was having the best time – probably in his life – leading up to that. He left behind a big hole and everything felt very empty here. He’ll never be forgotten.”
Fittingly, a plant blooming with beautiful, bright pink flowers is now growing in his memory at the centre.
“There's a lot of sadness around losing Leonard, but there was also a lot of joy when he was with us and just walking past his little plant makes me smile and remember how he was the coolest dog. He really was the best,” said Jenna.
But the team hope that this special plant isn’t the only reminder of Leonard’s remarkable life in years to come.
Jenna said: “We want Leonard’s story to raise awareness and help other dogs, as what he went through isn’t unusual.
“The sounds dogs like him make aren’t sweet or comical. Their faces may be cute, but those noises are not okay – those are not dogs in health, they are dogs that are challenged with breathing.
“I think, in my experience of seeing brachycephalic breeds coming to Blue Cross, I couldn't say that I've seen one without some type of wheezing or sound-related breathing, which is heartbreaking.
“We’re not saying you shouldn’t go out there and find yourself a dog to join your family; it’s one of the best things that anyone can do. But you need to have that awareness around breed traits, so I would encourage anyone thinking about getting any dog to do their research.
"If you choose to have a puppy, find breeders that are breeding dogs without these complications or deformities.”