Brachycephalic dogs have short, broad heads, short noses and flat faces. Think Boston Terrier, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, English Bulldog, French Bulldog, Pekinese, Pug and Shih Tzu. These dogs are undeniably cute, but the conformation of their heads can cause one or more health challenges. Breeders, especially of show dogs, have put genetic pressure on these breeds to create somewhat extreme versions of their looks. If you are choosing one of these breeds as a pet and have the pick of the litter, your best bet is to choose the pup with the mildest conformation – that is, the least pushed-in nose.
While this article focuses on dogs, certain cat breeds such as Persians also are brachycephalic.
It is not uncommon for brachycephalic dogs to have a condition called brachycephalic upper airway obstructive syndrome (BUAOS), caused by a long soft palate, narrow nostrils, and a small windpipe. The head shape of brachycephalic dogs causes crowding of the soft tissues – soft palate, tongue, and cartilage – and the nostrils may appear as narrow slits.
The principal health challenges faced by brachycephalic dogs affect the eyes, skin and respiratory system:
Eyes: Flat skulls create shallow eye sockets and bulging eyes. This exposes the eye’s outer surface, or cornea, causing it to be chronically dry and possibly leading to ulceration or injury.
Skin: Brachycephalic dogs typically have excess facial skin because of their short, flat skulls. This manifests itself as extra skin folds on the front of the face that create deep crevices harboring moist, warm environments that yeast and bacteria love. Inflammation and infection can result. Daily cleansing and drying, along with antibiotics as needed, can help minimize the problem, but not entirely eliminate it.
Respiratory system: As mentioned earlier, BUAOS is common is brachycephalic dogs. Its symptoms include breathing problems in which the dog must work harder to breathe through their nostrils, resulting in mouth-breathing and panting. Mouth breathing defeats the ability of the nose to help regulate a dog’s internal temperature and causes poor heat tolerance. In addition, a brachycephalic dog constantly engages its abdominal muscles to force air flow, which creates a suction effect at the larynx, at the top of the windpipe (trachea). Over time, the suction can weaken the tough cartilage frame supporting the larynx, causing it to fold inwards, collapse and narrow the airway. Breathing is seriously compromised when this happens.
Your brachycephalic dog may experience several of these symptoms:
Choking on food
Development of blue gums or tongue
Fainting Heat intolerance
Loud snoring during sleep
Noisy breathing (especially when exercising or excited)
Poor ability to exercise
Brachycephalic dogs with a less-pronounced conformation will likely suffer fewer and less severe symptoms. But remember, labored breathing is not “normal” and should, with all other symptoms, be closely monitored by your veterinarian.
Diagnosis of BUAOS
Your veterinarian must test for BUAOS by examining the larynx and trachea. Examination must reveal an overlong palate and/or the collapse of the voice box or windpipe, as well as any foreign obstructions in the airways, swelling due to allergies, and upper respiratory system infections.
Normally, your dog will not require active treatment unless it shows signs of clinical problems. Treatments vary with the type, cause and severity of the problem(s). Surgery, such as shortening an elongated palate or widening the nostrils, can prevent some breathing problems. Your vet will monitor the dog’s breathing, pulse, heart rate, temperature and other factors when surgery is performed.
You can help your brachycephalic dog by protecting it from warm, humid weather and keeping its weight in check. Obesity can worsen respiratory problems, so follow your vet’s feeding instructions and buy your dog food from the veterinary office. Schedule semi-annual checkups for your pet, and follow any suggestions your vet makes to help your dog live a happier life.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.