Brachycephalic dogs, otherwise known as dogs with “smushed” faces, are quickly becoming some of the most popular breeds in the world. They include, to name a few, the Pug, Bulldog, Boston Terrier, Boxer, Shih tzu, Pekingese, Lhasa Apso, Brussels Griffon, and Japanese Chin.
Over the last decade in the United States alone, the number of AKC registrations for American and English Bulldogs has gone up 69%, while the French Bulldog, or “Frenchie”, has enjoyed a staggering 476% increase.
So what makes brachycephalic dogs, or “brachys”, so popular?
For one, most are fun-loving, intelligent, happy dogs packed with personality and energy. And then there’s that face! Brachys were specifically bred to have rounder, flatter faces (which makes them appear more human-like), with big eyes that can melt your heart. Most pet parents with brachys are utterly devoted to them, and tend to have several over the course of their lifetime.
However, sharing your life with a brachycephalic dog requires extra skill and a knowledge of what makes them different from most other breeds. These dogs have special needs when it comes to keeping them healthy into old age, and anyone who is considering life with a brachy should be aware of what makes them different, and why.
Brachycephalic Dog Anatomy
The term “brachycephalic” is Greek for “short head”. All brachys were bred to have a shorter, more rounded head with a very short muzzle. Because of this, their lower jaws are normal in size, but their upper jaws are much smaller and more compressed.
This altered facial anatomy has a big impact on the dog’s body, including the respiratory system, teeth, eyes, and skin. Here are the things that make brachys different, along with ways their health can be impacted if certain precautions aren’t taken to protect them.
Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome
This is the most common health issue in brachycephalic dogs. It can result in difficulty breathing, loud snoring, exercise intolerance (due to not being able to take in enough air), and a predisposition to heat stroke. Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome results from the perfect storm of 4 things acting together:
- An Elongated Soft Palate. Although these dogs’ heads were shortened over time, the soft palate (the large flap of skin at the back of the throat) was not. This causes it to periodically flop over the windpipe and obstruct the dog’s airway.
- Stenotic Nares. This is the fancy term for nostrils that are too small and narrow, which makes it harder for the dog to take in air.
- Narrow Trachea. The trachea, or windpipe, in brachycephalic dogs is more narrow. This can cause the dog to be prone to a condition called collapsing trachea.
- Everted Laryngeal Saccules. These are 2 thick clumps of soft tissue located on either side of the trachea. Normally, they stay tucked up out of the way, but if the dog is struggling to breathe, they can temporarily pop out into the throat, further obstructing the airway.
Eyes That Don’t Exactly Fit
Brachycephalic dogs often have shallow eye sockets, which causes their eyeballs to not fit quite right in their heads. Unfortunately, a blow to the back of the head (or any type of head trauma) can actually dislodge an eye, causing it to pop out of the socket. This requires emergency surgery to reposition the eye in the socket.
Pulling too strenuously on a leash attached to a neck collar can also cause an eye to become dislodged. For this reason (and the fact that neck collars place even more stress on their already compromised breathing anatomy), it’s recommended that brachys wear only a harness when on-leash.
Furthermore, due to the fact that their eyes tend to bulge out, brachys often suffer from dry and irritated eyes since their eyelids don’t always close all the way.
Increased Risk Of Skin Infections
Brachys have faces that are pushed in, causing folds and wrinkles in their skin. These facial folds offer the perfect environment for both bacteria and yeast to grow, which can lead to skin infections. The sides of the folds can also rub together, creating irritation and trauma on the surface of the skin, causing redness and irritation.
Daily gentle cleaning of these skin folds with a damp cloth can help prevent irritation and infection.
Difficulty With Anesthesia
Brachys are at a much higher risk of experiencing adverse effects from anesthesia than other dogs. Their compromised airway makes it difficult for them to get enough oxygen, both during the procedure and afterwards while they are waking up.
Their heart and respiratory rates are also notoriously unpredictable while under anesthetic, especially if they also happen to be overweight. I’ve worked with many a veterinarian whose stress level increased greatly when they realized their surgical patient was a brachycephalic dog! Brachys often require much lower doses of anesthetic and very careful monitoring, both during and after surgery. If your brachy needs surgery, make sure that he or she has been carefully examined and is cleared to undergo anesthesia before you give your consent.
Mouths That Are Too Small
Brachys have 42 teeth just like all other dogs, but because of their pushed-in faces and smaller mouths, their teeth get crammed into a much smaller space. This can lead to overlapping teeth, or teeth coming in at odd angles, both of which contribute to dental and gum problems.
Parents of brachycephalic dogs need to be extra diligent about keeping their dogs’ mouths as clean as possible by brushing their teeth several times a week. If necessary, oral rinses can also be used to reduce bacteria. Because brachys are at a much higher risk during anesthetic procedures, it’s important to do everything possible to avoid dental procedures requiring anesthesia.
Prone To Heatstroke
The main way a dog dissipates excess body heat is by panting. Because brachycephalic dogs don’t have an efficient respiratory system due to their anatomy, it makes it much harder for them to dump off excess heat. This makes them a prime target for heat stroke.
This is why it’s particularly important for brachys to stay at a lean, healthy weight. Not only does excess weight place an even greater burden on their already overworked respiratory systems, but the additional fat on an overweight dog adds more insulation that keeps excess body heat in.
Heat stroke in a brachycephalic dog is life-threatening and has resulted in fatalities. Any parent of a brachy should be aware of the signs of heat stroke, and seek veterinary attention immediately if they suspect their dog is experiencing it.
There are additional challenges that seem to be unique to life with a brachy. Flying can be an issue, since many airlines have restrictions about flying with brachycephalic dogs due to their increased risk of heat stroke and respiratory distress. Brachys are also more prone to loud snoring and reverse sneezing due to their longer soft palates. And they often suffer from exercise intolerance, so they generally don’t make good candidates for running or strenuous hiking.
Also, because their heads are often disproportionately large, labor and delivery in pregnant brachycephalic dogs is difficult, and most require a surgical C-section to deliver the puppies.
Are There Any Solutions To These Issues?
There is a surgical procedure that can be performed to help reduce the symptoms of Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome by widening the nostrils and removing excess tissue from the soft palate. Some brachy parents elect to have this procedure done at the time their dogs are spayed or neutered. However, since every surgery has risk, talk with your veterinarian about whether this procedure may be an option for your brachy.
Of course there is another, more long-term, solution. Many veterinary and pet health care professionals are currently advocating for changes in the breed standards. The Institute of Canine Biology is a strong proponent of breeding longer muzzles back into these bloodlines, stating that “breed standards need to be modified to describe a skull that will accommodate the normal and necessary functions of a dog, and breeders will need to make a commitment to be as diligent about breeding for this as they are for any other trait.”
More Than Just A Pretty Face
If you currently have a brachycephalic dog, or are thinking about adopting one, be aware that Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome can be a progressive condition that may worsen with age. It’s important to familiarize yourself with what are “normal” sounds for your dog and what aren’t – and to get those issues addressed by a veterinarian as soon as they appear, rather than waiting.
With all the potential problems that brachycephalic breeds face, some people wonder why they remain so popular and have their own almost cultish following. Many people who choose to share their lives with a brachy say that, despite all of their issues, brachys have great personalities and make entertaining and loyal companions. Being aware of potential health issues and how to anticipate or prevent them can give many brachys a long and happy life for years to come.
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Have you ever shared your life with a brachycephalic dog? If so, what were your biggest joys and challenges? Please share your story with us in the comments below!