Alex loves animals and is an experienced licensed veterinary technician with a BS in Biology and an AS in Veterinary Technology.
What Is a brachycephalic dog?
If you are familiar with dogs you have heard this term before. If not you have likely heard the less proper terms 'smush' or 'squish' face dogs. In simple terms, these are dogs that have a shortened muzzle. Their skulls are large, and they often have a bulging appearance to their eyes.
Some of the features that may not be visible to the untrained eye include an elongated soft palate and stenotic nares. What does this mean? The soft palate is directly behind the hard palate in the mouth, the hard palate is the part commonly known as the roof of the mouth. Stenotic nares are nostrils that are not as open as they should be. These last two points are important to keep in mind
What are some common brachycephalic breeds?
- Boston terrier
- English bulldog (the bulldog)
- French bulldog
- Shih Tzu
This is not a full list of brachycephalic breeds. These are just some of the most commonly seen breeds. Having worked in clinical practice for nearly ten years, I can count on one hand the number of times I have encountered a Brussels Griffon, Japanese Chin, or a Pekingese. Why is that? I would imagine it is because these breeds are not as popular, so if you wanted one you would have to go directly to a breeder to get one. They are not as likely to be found at a pet store as the French bulldog.
Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome
There are four airway anatomical abnormalities that can contribute to this disease.
- Stenotic nares: As previously mentioned, this means their nostrils that are not as open as they should be. If you look at these dogs you cannot see up their nose.
- Elongated soft palate: This excessive amount of tissue can block the trachea. This is why many of the brachycephalic breeds have a snorting sound when they breathe or why they often snore at night.
- Hypoplastic trachea: This will need radiographs to diagnose. In these dogs the trachea, this is the 'wind pipe', is smaller in diameter than it normally should be.
- Everted laryngeal saccules: This is often secondary to the above-mentioned conditions.
There are some repairs that can be made surgically to help dogs that suffer from brachycephalic airway syndrome. The nares can be opened to allow better airflow, called a stenotic nares repair. The excessive tissue of the soft palate can be surgically removed, this is called a soft palate resection.
I worked with a veterinarian that would describe this syndrome as trying to breathe through a straw and only that straw. I think that's the best analogy I've heard. It is difficult to get enough oxygen for metabolic needs, the air is warm, and the entire process is exhausting.
Brachycephalic breeds are more sensitive to heat than a normal dog. They cannot cool themselves easily and they are constantly breathing hot air. This means they are more likely to suffer from heatstroke.
I've seen French bulldogs rushed in for signs of heatstroke when their owners took them on a walk on a sunny 75-degree spring day. In short, this is not the kind of dog you want to get if you want a running partner. In fact, if it is over 65 outside I make sure to have a water bottle with me when I take my Boston Terrier for a walk, even if it is only a potty walk, and my Boston has nice and open nares and no elongated soft palate.
These dogs often have an increased risk of ocular injury and illnesses. Their eyes tend to bulge from their head. This puts them at an increased risk for corneal ulcers, glaucoma, and cataracts. Boxers, in particular, I've seen so many come in for corneal ulcers.
There is an increased anesthetic risk for these breeds. Breathing is difficult enough for them when they are awake, it is even more so when they are under anesthesia. Intubation is difficult as they have a smaller trachea than a dog their size should have, and they tend to have more tissue in the back of the throat.
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Bulldogs in particular have a large amount of bulk that can affect their breathing while they are on their backs. However, it is important to note that once they are intubated they will breathe better than they ever will in their awake lives. When I would extubate dogs after surgery most tend to panic if they notice the endotracheal tube.
Brachycephalic breeds always sit up and seem quite happy to have their endotracheal tube in place. This is because the tube provides a clear airway that cannot be obstructed by excessive tissue of the soft palate or larynx, and they are not dependent upon breathing through their nose. I always felt bad when I had to pull the tube out. They simply cannot live with it in place long term.
These breeds tend to be lazy, and as such, they tend to gain weight. This can predispose them to become obese. Obesity in canines is just as detrimental as it is in people. It puts excessive strain on joints, which can be even more detrimental in that most of these breeds are also predisposed to a luxating patella. That is an entirely different post as going in detail can be a novel.
These breeds also tend to have a lot of facial folds. These wrinkles are often why people find them so cute. If moisture gets in these facial folds the folds can become inflamed, infected, and very painful. It is very important to ensure these folds are dry and clean. I wipe the facial folds on my Boston every day. If I do not, the tearing from her eyes can cause infection in just a few days. It's better to prevent than it is to treat.
There is extreme controversy surrounding brachycephalic breeds. In fact, they are banned in certain parts of the world. The breeding of English bulldogs, and other brachycephalic breeds, is illegal in England. Many airlines will not allow brachycephalic breeds to fly, though that may also have to do with the scandal involving a flight attendant forcing an owner to store their French bulldog puppy in the overhead bin (the owner actually did...) and the puppy died by the end of the flight. But that is a whole other can of worms.
Many people see it as unethical to breed dogs for aesthetic purposes, especially if it decreases the quality of life of the dog. Essentially that is what has happened over time when these breeds were crafted. Dogs with shorter and shorter muzzles were bred together because people thought it was cute. Now, we have a dog that is far removed from its ancestors and serves no purpose besides being a companion. If you have a soft stomach you may want to avoid looking at images of skulls from brachycephalic breeds, though there is a fascinating CT scan of a pug skull that is on YouTube.
Now, I'm not saying brachycephalic dogs are horrible and that if you like them you are a bad person. I feel that they should be bred responsibly if they are going to be bred at all.
If you are going to get a brachycephalic breed, try and get one from a responsible breeder. A responsible breeder will not be breeding dogs that have brachycephalic airway syndrome. There is even a bit of a push in the industry to breed dogs that have longer muzzles to help increase the offspring's ability to breathe. In addition, BAS responsible breeders will not breed dogs that have a luxating patella or allergies, as both can be genetically linked.
When choosing a puppy, or an adult, look at the nose. Can you see into the nose? Listen to the breathing? Does it sound forced, loud, snorty? If you can't see into the nose and the dog is noisy when breathing, you may not want to consider this dog. I'm not saying this is a bad dog. This dog may be the friendliest you will ever meet. However, it will have special needs and will likely require additional veterinary care. This means this dog is likely going to cost more throughout its life. This is something you should be aware of.
I've seen too many new pet owners come in with their new French bulldog puppy and be surprised by finding out their dog needed a nose job. I've seen the old pugs where their owners didn't fix the stenotic nares or elongated soft palate, it is painful watching them breathe.
In the End
If you are looking for a high-energy dog that you can take everywhere, you should not consider a brachycephalic dog. They may have a lot of energy, but they are prone to overheating. If you are more on the side of being at home, taking short walks, and wanting a companion that will likely not leave your side at home, then a brachycephalic breed may be for you.
If you understand and are willing to take on the special needs and increased veterinary cost of owning a brachycephalic breed, then I strongly recommend sourcing a responsible breeder, contacting a rescue, or checking with your local shelter.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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