Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, but are classified into three broad groups based on skull type. Dogs with a neutral head shape (e.g., Labrador) are termed mesocephalic, elongated head shapes are called dolichocephalic (e.g., greyhound), and pets with short noses, round heads, and large eyes, which give them the smushed-in faces we love so much, are brachycephalic. Popular brachycephalic breed examples include the pug, French bulldog, English bulldog, shih tzu, and Persian and exotic shorthair cats.
Humans are enamored by brachycephalic pets’ appearance, but their unique, endearing features predispose them to multiple health problems that can negatively impact their quality of life. The Juanita Hills Animal Hospital team wants pet owners to understand brachycephalic pets’ special care needs—here are the eight most important things you should know.
#1: Brachycephalic pets struggle to breathe
Many brachycephalic pets, especially pugs and bulldogs, struggle with brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, a collection of abnormalities that makes breathing more difficult. Affected pets may have one or more of the following:
- Narrow trachea — Pets feel like they’re breathing through a straw.
- Stenotic nares — Small nasal openings limit air intake.
- Everted laryngeal saccules — Tissues near the voicebox pouch out and partially obstruct the airway.
- Elongated soft palate — Tissue lining the upper mouth extends too far back, sticks to other tissues, and obstructs breathing.
#2: Brachycephalic pets overheat easily
Pets with airway disease who struggle to breathe normally have difficulty cooling down. The airway dissipates heat when pets pant, but brachycephalics cannot exchange enough air, and even minor exertion in summer heat is enough to overheat these pets. Their subsequent rapid breathing can cause tissue swelling and airway obstruction, and sometimes causes death. Pets should be kept in climate-controlled environments with no excess stress to prevent a deadly event.
#3: Your brachycephalic pet may need corrective airway surgery
Airway disease predisposes pets to sudden death from airway obstruction, limits their exercise ability, and lowers overall quality of life. For these reasons, surgery is recommended in young pets with severe abnormalities, to help them live longer and more comfortably. Your primary veterinarian can enlarge their nasal openings during routine anesthesia, but a specialist needs to perform surgery deeper in the airway.
#4: Brachycephalic pets snore
The airway changes result in excessive noise as pets attempt to breathe, both while awake and sleeping. Some pets snore so loudly that they disrupt the rest of the household’s sleep.
#5: Eye problems are common in brachycephalic pets
Most brachycephalic pets have large, round eyes with shallow eye sockets that make them prone to corneal ulcers, with many developing chronic corneal inflammation (i.e., keratitis) that results in dark pigment that obstructs vision. Some pets also have eyelids that roll inward or extra eyelashes that require corrective surgery. Brachycephalic cats are prone to corneal sequestrum (i.e., a dead corneal spot), and may have chronic tearing or nasal discharge. If a brachycephalic pet sustains head trauma, their eyes can dislocate (i.e., proptose) more easily than other pets. So, prepare for frequent visits to the veterinary ophthalmologist if you own a brachycephalic pet.
#6: Brachycephalic pets require extra attention to skin and ear health
Facial or tail skinfolds seen in brachycephalic pets need wiping out daily to prevent moisture accumulation and subsequent infections, especially if eye problems contribute to facial wetness. Narrow ear canals can also trap debris and cause infection, so cleaning is recommended every one to two weeks, as well as frequent bathing with a medicated antimicrobial shampoo to keep skin healthy and prevent infections.
#7: Obesity is a big problem for brachycephalic pets
Brachycephalics with airway disease generally cannot get enough oxygen to exercise like other pets, and risk overheating when they do. Inactive pets are easily over-fed, which often leads to obesity. Many brachycephalic pets also have short-legged frames, and extra weight can be hard on their joints and spine, and make them prone to degenerative spinal disc disease as well.
#8: Better breeding is key for the future of brachycephalic pets
Because people love brachycephalic breeds, more and more irresponsible breeders have jumped on the opportunity to sell puppies. Inexperienced, backyard breeders are not selective about parent traits and may perpetuate or worsen the breed’s health problems. Some European countries have banned or restricted breeding of certain dogs to correct these problems. The U.S. hasn’t yet followed suit, but the veterinary community is collaborating with breeders to improve health without eliminating entire breeds.
The brachycephalic bottom line
Brachycephalic dogs and cats can make wonderful pets, but be prepared for the extra time and expense required to keep these breeds healthy. If you adopt a rescued pet, ensure they are fully evaluated for common health problems so you know what you are getting into. If you choose to purchase from a breeder, take your time and find the right breeder. A reputable breeder will allow you to meet the puppy’s parents, see their environment, and show evidence that the parents are healthy and free from genetic diseases.
Veterinary care is important for brachycephalic pets, and you can trust the team at Juanita Hills Animal Hospital to be your partner in your pet’s ongoing care. Call us to schedule a wellness evaluation appointment, pre-adoption or purchase counseling, or to learn more about brachycephalic care needs.