Who can resist a flat-faced dog or cat? Apparently, not many—the popularity of these smushy dogs and cats has soared over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, that irresistible and iconic cuteness comes at a cost, because these extreme features create many health challenges.

If you own or are considering a brachycephalic breed, you need to know their many important traits—in addition to their snoring. To help you better understand the dynamic needs of these flat-faced breeds, Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital has composed this guide to brachycephalic pets.

What makes a pet brachycephalic?

Brachycephalic breeds are classified by their wide or broad skull, and shortened muzzle. The term brachycephalic is Greek for “short head.” For comparison, other canine skull classifications include long-nosed dolichocephalic breeds (e.g., collies, and greyhounds) and moderate mesocephalic breeds (e.g., golden retrievers, and beagles). 

History suggests that brachycephalic traits may have been originally selected to provide the fighting bulldog with a stronger jaw. Another theory proposes that neoteny, (i.e., the human attraction and preference for baby-like features) is to blame for the exaggerated skull shape and pushed-in appearance. While some brachycephalic features are present in many dogs and cats, the primary brachycephalic breeds include: 

  • Boston terrier
  • Boxer
  • English bulldog
  • French bulldog
  • Pug
  • Pekingese 
  • Shih tzu
  • Persian cat

What health issues are unique to brachycephalic pets?

Because of their many unusual features, brachycephalic pets can suffer from one or more conformation-related challenges. Fortunately, many conditions can be diagnosed during a routine examination. The most common brachycephalic health problems include:

  • Breathing difficulties — The compacted brachycephalic skull results in flattened or small nasal passages and trachea (i.e., windpipe). While not all brachycephalic pets are affected by respiratory problems, because of the high proportion of dogs and cats with structural abnormalities, the term brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) or brachycephalic syndrome was coined. Obvious BOAS signs, including snoring, snorting, and snuffling, are seen especially in dogs, but BOAS-affected pets may also have the following abnormalities:
    • Elongated palate — The long soft palate tissue creates air flow resistance to and from the lungs.
    • Stenotic nares — Stenotic nares (i.e., narrow nostrils) can range from a slight narrowing to extremely compressed nostrils. 
    • Everted laryngeal saccules — These tissue pouches located near the vocal cords are turned outward, causing airway obstruction and airflow resistance. 

Examples of brachycephalic cases seen at Boca Midtowne include:

Each abnormality requires the pet to work harder to move air to and from the lungs. Some dogs may also have a narrow trachea or weakened tracheal cartilage, resulting in airway collapse. Corrective surgery is often necessary to make breathing easier and  restore quality of life to affected pets. 

  • Exercise and heat intolerance — Respiratory challenges may prevent brachycephalic dogs from normal physical activity. Many brachycephalic dogs are at high risk of collapse when playing and running because of poor oxygenation or airway obstruction. Our warm temperatures and high humidity are potentially deadly, as panting is the only method for these dogs to lower their body temperature.
  • Crowded mouth — The shortened brachycephalic jaw and the characteristic underbite give brachycephalic breeds a comical and iconic appearance. However, the crowded and disorganized teeth can leave pet owners with little to laugh about. 

Brachycephalic pet dental issues include overcrowding, excessive gum tissue, and malocclusion, making their dental health a challenge for veterinarians. Crowded and rotated teeth trap plaque, tartar, hair, food, and debris, creating a breeding ground for periodontal disease. Another common condition, gingival hyperplasia (i.e., gum overgrowth), entraps foreign matter and bacteria, setting up painful infection.

  • Eye issues — The expressive, prominent eyes of a Persian cat, pug, or shih tzu have less skeletal support than a longer-muzzled breed. This exposed or bulging position makes the eye susceptible to injury and conditions that include ulceration, scratches, chronic dry eye, and proptosis (i.e., displacement of the eyeball from the socket). 
  • Skin conditions — A bulldog’s ample facial wrinkles demand attention, not only because they’re cute, but also because their skin folds need daily cleaning to prevent infection and odor. Overlapping skin creates a moist, dark environment where yeast and bacteria can quickly breed, and tear staining caused by narrowed tear ducts can create infection, skin irritation, and fur discoloration.
  • Reproductive problems — Because of anatomy, brachycephalic breeds have unique fertility, whelping, and delivery challenges. If you’re considering breeding your pet, you should contact us to discuss the significant health risks. 

What’s the best way to care for a brachycephalic pet?

While brachycephalic pets certainly pose unique care challenges, they can make wonderful family companions for those aware of their needs. To ensure your smush-faced pet has the best possible health and wellbeing, we recommend the following:

  • Find a reputable breeder — Every breed has a national parent club that can provide you with a list of reputable breeders who adhere to health testing.
  • Monitor your pet’s weight — Obesity can worsen respiratory problems.
  • Avoid warm weather — If you must exercise your dog, do so in the morning or evening, and stick with low-impact activities.
  • Prevent overexertion — Don’t let your pet play or exercise until they are fatigued. If they start panting, take a break.
  • Visit your veterinarian regularly — Preventive care can keep your pet in tip-top shape and ensure a long and healthy life.

At Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital, we love all pets, and believe each one deserves customized attention and care. Identifying and addressing the unique challenges of brachycephalic pets can improve their quality of life and ensure many happy, snort-filled years of charming companionship. If you have additional questions about these cute and compact pets, or need to schedule your next visit, call us or request an appointment online.