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Brachycephalic (short-faced) Dogs: Owner Information

Breeds with wrinkled noses and smooshy faces like Pugs, Bulldogs and Pekingese are undeniably adorable. It is no wonder their popularity has increased more than 400% in the last decade. While they make fantastic companions, it's very important for owners to understand they are also at higher risk for a host of medical issues.

These Brachycephalic or "short-faced" dogs have been bred to achieve a shorter lower jaw and compressed upper jaw, which can produce severe to life-threatening changes to the normal function of these structures. Most brachycephalic dogs are not hampered by their anatomy on a day-to-day basis but they do have limitations that must be recognized. Severely affected individuals require surgical intervention. Owners who are educated and aware of the conditions can intervene when medical attention is needed.

The Respiratory System and Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome:

Stenotic Nares, Macroglossa, Elongated Soft Palate, Tracheal Stenosis/ Hypoplastic Trachea. These are essentially fancy names for narrowed nostrils, an obstructive (overly large and thick) tongue, a soft palate that is too long and can obstruct the airway, and a dangerously narrowed windpipe. The brachycephalic dog's respiratory passage begins with very small, often slit-like, nasal openings for breathing which leads to open-mouth breathing and panting. Their large tongue, extended soft palate tissue and narrow windpipe further limit the flow of air that is necessary for oxygenation and cooling. These abnormalities also increase the risk of aspiration pneumonia. Additionally, anesthesia carries greater risks as maintaining an airway for these patients can be difficult.

Heat Stress, Excitement, and Exercise

Because of all these upper respiratory obstructions, the brachycephalic dog pants inefficiently. So much extra work is required to move the same amount of air that the airways become inflamed and swollen. This inflammation leads to a more severe obstruction, distress, and further overheating, which is potentially a life-threatening problem. It should always be a consideration during stressful situations, especially air travel. Brachycephalic dogs are also the most likely candidates for heat stroke.

Gastrointestinal Tract

In brachycephalic breeds, the esophagus (the tube that conducts swallowed food from the throat to the stomach) experiences reflux of stomach contents backwards. Medications are helpful for the intestinal issues as is weight control, but often correcting the respiratory obstruction corrects the intestinal problems as well.

 Eye Problems

In many Brachycephalics, the eye sockets are shallow making the eyeballs especially prominent and vulnerable. Often a nasal fold of skin rubs on the eyeball and/or there are eyelashes rubbing on the eye. Problems with lids that don't close completely over the eye (lagophthalmos) or turned-in eyelids (entropion), dry eye, and the risk of proptosis (eyes that are displaced from their socket) are risk factors.

IVDD: Intervertebral Disc Disease

An unnatural shortening of the spinal column and tail through selective breeding has led to compression of the vertebrae. IVDD, a condition where vertebrae press painfully against the spinal cord, is more likely in brachycephalic breeds. These pets should be maintained at a healthy weight and should do regular low-impact exercise. Jumping off the couch or bed and bounding up stairs should be avoided.


Other Concerns

The normal dog has 42 teeth in the mouth. The brachycephalic dog also has 42 teeth but a lot less space to fit them in. This means that the teeth will be crowded and growing in at odd angles which, in turn, traps food debris and leads to periodontal disease at a far younger age than in non-brachycephalics. The earlier you begin using home care dental products, the longer you will be able to postpone full dentistry under general anesthesia.

As mentioned, skin fold infections are common amid the facial folds of the brachycephalic breeds which will likely need regular cleaning and topical disinfection.

The broad-headed nature of these breeds makes reproduction a tricky matter as Cesarean section is frequently needed. Difficult labor is common and, as surgical assistance is often necessary, it is important not to breed females with tracheal stenosis (see above). Brachycephalic breeding is not for the inexperienced.

Important Points to Keep Your Brachycephalic Pet Healthy and Safe:

  • Do not walk or exercise in high heat

  • Do not encourage high-impact exercise

  • Do not allow your pet to become overweight

  • Maintain oral health with regular hygiene

  • Keep skin folds clean with regular hygiene

  • Have your pet examined at least annually

  • Discourage excessive barking

  • Use a harness, not a leash

Signs and Symptoms of Serious Breed-Related Crises:

  • Limping, wobbly gate, difficulty walking

  • Coughing, poor appetite, weakness

  • Vomiting or regurgitation after eating

  • Blepharospasm (holding eye shut)

  • Breathing changes (noises that are unusual for your dog, prolonged panting)

Altogether, the brachycephalic breeds show plenty of personality and intelligence, just as all dogs do, but because of their specific needs, their owners need extra knowledge. If you have any questions about your brachycephalic dog, don't hesitate to call.

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