Brachycephalic (i.e., flat-faced) dogs and cats are seemingly everywhere—their irresistible wrinkles, tiny noses, round eyes, and charming personalities have won millions of animal-loving hearts. Unfortunately, these unique features come with a cost, and many brachycephalic pets experience serious respiratory, eye, skin, and reproductive issues that impact their quality of life. However, with attentive care, responsible breeding, and regular visits to Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Richmond, your flat-faced furry friend can live a well-rounded and healthy life.

Defining the brachycephalic pet

Pets with a defined skull shape that includes a broad dome or forehead and a shortened or flat muzzle are classified as brachycephalic. The most recognizable brachycephalic breeds include:

  • Dogs:
    • English bulldog
    • French bulldog
    • Pug
    • Boxer
    • Shih tzu
    • Pekingese
    • Boston terrier
    • Mastiff breeds
  • Cats:
    • Persian 
    • Himalayan
    • Burmese
    • Exotic and British shorthair

Health issues facing brachycephalic pets

The brachycephalic pet’s disproportionately large, uniquely shaped head causes the majority of their health conditions, which include:

  • Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) — The brachycephalic skull significantly distorts many essential features, including the upper airway. BOAS is a collective term for any combination of airway abnormalities, including:
    • Narrow nostrils (i.e., stenotic nares) — The iconic flat muzzle compresses the nostrils and causes air flow resistance. Brachycephalic pets’ nostrils may be slit-like or completely closed down.
    • Narrow trachea — Compared with their large head, brachycephalic pets have an abnormally narrow trachea (i.e., windpipe).
    • Elongated soft palate — Excess tissue at the back of a brachycephalic pet’s throat extends beyond normal limits and may obstruct the airway, causing snoring and noisy breathing, and making normal breathing difficult.
    • Everted saccules — Small cyst-like structures on either side of the airway may be everted, and can be pulled into the trachea during inhalation.

BOAS is a serious condition that can be life-threatening for brachycephalic pets. Any obstruction that causes resistance makes normal breathing, which is already a problem, more difficult, and these pets have to exert additional effort with each breath. Brachycephalic pets can therefore overheat quickly, including in cool weather. Brachycephalic pet owners must be vigilant about pet stress, overexcitement, and heatstroke—which may all lead to collapse and respiratory arrest.

Pet owners should note any BOAS signs and report them to their veterinarian for evaluation. These include:

    • Excessive breathing noise
    • Snoring and snorting
    • Exercise intolerance
    • Respiratory distress
    • Abnormal sleeping positions
    • Propping open the mouth with a toy
    • Abnormal gum color after exertion
    • Collapse
  • Ocular problems —  Brachycephalic pets are known for their large, round, slightly protruding eyes. Unfortunately, this infantile expression can impair normal eye function and lead to ocular injuries and emergencies, including:
    • Corneal abrasions and ulcers — Large eyes are more vulnerable to debris, dryness, and injury that can result in painful scratches and ulcers. Some brachycephalic pets cannot completely close their eyelids, which exposes the eyes to chronic dryness and requires daily medication. 
    • Ocular proptosis — Protruding eyes often have shallow sockets and are vulnerable to displacement, especially during trauma (e.g., a dog attack). Proptosed eyes require emergency surgery, but may still result in vision or eye loss.

  • Dental disease — The brachycephalic pet’s shortened jaw leads to overcrowded and rotated teeth, and many have a malocclusion (i.e., underbite), which all contribute to dental disease by creating more hiding places for bacteria. These pets need proactive tooth extraction to avoid pain, infection, and tooth loss.
  • Skin issues — Brachycephalic pets typically have an overabundance of soft tissue, especially on the head and neck, which contributes to their trademark wrinkles and folds. Unfortunately, these folds can be a breeding ground for yeast and bacteria, and can cause significant discomfort, irritation, and infection. Brachycephalic pet owners must maintain a daily skin care routine to prevent inflammation and infection.
  • Orthopedic issues — According to one study, French bulldogs are eight times more likely to fracture an elbow than mixed-breed dogs. And, although the cause is unclear, the breed’s disproportionately large head may contribute to the traumatic forces during a fall. Brachycephalic pets also can be affected by other notable orthopedic issues, including patellar luxation and hip dysplasia. 
  • Reproductive problems — Many brachycephalic breeds, including French and English bulldogs, need a Cesarean section, because the puppies’ heads are too large to fit through the birth canal. Dystocia is an emergency situation that requires rapid veterinary intervention to save both dam and puppies. In addition, several brachycephalic dog breeds cannot mate naturally, because their top-heavy conformation and poor respiratory health make the breeding act a serious health risk for the male and female dogs.

Caring for your brachycephalic pet

Although the above list seems scary, brachycephalic pets can and do live long and healthy lives when their owners are informed and diligent about their care. Here are the most important ways to provide for your brachycephalic pet:

  • Weight management — Excess weight can worsen respiratory and orthopedic problems. Talk to your veterinarian if you’re unsure about your brachycephalic pet’s weight.
  • Heat safety — Keep your pet indoors during warm and hot weather, and prevent overexcitement and overexertion when the mercury rises above 70 degrees. Never leave your pet unattended in a car or outdoors.
  • Prevent overexertion — Encourage your brachycephalic pet to stay calm and avoid overexcitement, which can trigger respiratory distress.
  • Spay and neuter — Altered pets live longer and healthier lives and avoid unfortunate reproductive emergencies.
  • Skin and dental care — Maintain a daily care routine that includes wiping your pet’s wrinkles and folds and brushing their teeth.

Most importantly, bring your brachycephalic pet to Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Richmond for their routine wellness and preventive care. Our veterinary team will evaluate your pet for BOAS and other breed-related issues that may interfere with their quality of life. Brachycephalic pets certainly require a lot of care and special attention, but these flat-faced dogs and cats round out our lives with love, laughter—and a little snoring.

Contact Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Richmond to schedule your brachycephalic pet’s annual examination.