Brachycephalic Dogs And Cats (what does brachycephalic mean and does it affect their health?)

Estimated Reading Time: 6 min | Last Updated: March 23rd, 2022

Have you ever heard of the the word brachycephalic? It’s a term used to described some of the most popular breeds of dogs (and cats!). These breeds have exaggerated physical features. While these features draw people to them, they do cause multiple heath problems. But was does brachycephalic mean, what breeds are brachycephalic, and what is brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome? Below we’ve answered all your questions and more.

What does brachycephalic mean?

The word brachycephalic has Greek roots; brachy, meaning short, and cephalic, meaning head. Brachycephalic cat and dog breeds have shortened snouts making them appear almost flat-faced. This is why they are often referred to as short-nosed and flat-faced animals.

The features of brachycephalic breeds are a result of breeding where physical features have been focused on rather than traits to maintain or improve their health. These features include:

  • Exaggerated short and wide skull
  • Short muzzle
  • Undershot jaw – this is where their bottom jaw is disproportionately longer than their upper jaw
  • Wide shoulders
  • Narrow hips
  • Deep skin folds

Brachycephalic breeds

There are both brachycephalic breeds of dogs and cats. The list of these breeds are long.

Brachycephalic dogs

Brachycephalic dogs include:

  • Affenpinscher
  • Boston terrier
  • Boxer
  • Brussels griffon
  • Bulldog
  • Bull mastiff
  • Cane corso
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniel
  • Chow chow
  • Dogue de Bordeaux
  • English bulldog
  • English toy spaniel
  • French bulldog
  • Japanese chin
  • Lhasa apso
  • Pekingese
  • Pug
  • Shih tzu

Brachycephalic cats

The list of brachycephalic cats isn’t as long, and the most well-recognised brachycephalic breeds of cats includes:

  • British shorthair
  • Burmese
  • Exotic shorthair
  • Himalayan
  • Persian

Health concerns with brachycephalic breeds

While they are loved for the pushed-in look their faces have, brachycephalic breeds can suffer from a range of health issues. The most well-known issue, is breathing problems. But they also face issues with digestion, eye diseases, difficulties giving birth, spinal malformation, exercise and heat intolerance, sleeping difficulties, skin diseases, and dental diseases.

Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome

Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOS) is also known as brachycephalic respiratory syndrome, brachycephalic syndrome, and congenital obstructive upper airway disease. This syndrome refers to the respiratory disorders commonly affecting brachycephalic breeds.

There are five main respiratory disorders these breeds can suffer from due to their smaller and narrower nostrils, long soft palate, and under-developed and smaller airways combine to prevent efficient air flow.

BOS is a life-long condition which becomes progressively worse typically affecting brachycephalic breeds early in their life.

Sleeping issues

Being able to sleep normally for some brachycephalic dog breeds can be problematic. Sleep apnoea is common in these breeds. This is when during sleep as they lose conscious control of their muscles their airways become obstructed and their breathing stops. Dogs who suffer from sleep apnoea are unable to go into a deep sleep for long periods of time and spend more time trying to sleep then actually sleeping. Their oxygen intake during sleep is also greatly reduced. All of which causes distress and anxiety to them. Not only do brachycephalic dogs wake up regularly while sleeping, they often sleep sitting up or with their chin elevated, and some have even been caught with a toy in their mouths to keep their mouth open to help compensate for airway obstruction.

Eye problems

Brachycephalic breeds can also suffer from a variety of eye problems.

Brachycephalic ocular syndrome

Due to the shape of their head and compacted muzzle, brachycephalic breeds typically have shallow eye sockets, giving them a pop eyed appearance. However, this can lead to abnormalities of the eye and eye diseases, known as brachycephalic ocular syndrome. Certain breeds, such as pugs, British bulldogs, and French bulldogs are predisposed to this syndrome.

As a preventative measure, and to minimise pain and discomfort multiple surgeries may be needed.  However, some abnormalities aren’t able to be corrected through surgery. Usually frequent or life-long topical eye medications are needed to manage the condition.

Brachycephalic breeds also have a higher risk of blindness.

Lagophthalmos

If the eyes are extremely prominent the lids cannot close all the way. This is called lagophthalmos. It can lead to irritation and drying at the centre of the eye, and in some cases blindness. Surgery is needed in order to correct this.

Nasal fold irritation

Many brachycephalic dog breeds have a fold of skin between their nose and eyes. If it is prominent enough it can rub the eyeball, causing chronic irritation. Depending where the skin in rubbing on the eye and how severe it is surgery may be needed.

Entropion

Because of their face structure it can lead to the eyelids rolling in a way the eyelashes or even the hair on the eyelid can rub the eye. Entropion, otherwise known as turned-in eyelids, is not just uncomfortable but also damages the eye. To protect the eye and for comfort surgery will be needed.

Dry eye

Also common in brachycephalic breeds dry eye occurs when they are  unable to produce enough tears to lubricate the eye. Instead a thick yellow eye discharge is produced. As a result from this discharge the eye can become pigmented and blindness can occur if not treated.

Proptosis

Due to their shallow eye sockets, brachcephalic breeds are at high risk of experiencing proposis. This can occur when a blow to the back of the head, no matter how minor, or even pulling against their leash causes an eye to prop from its socket. The eye will require surgical replacement or in some cases removing the eye entirely.

Spinal and tail malformation

Common in British bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, and Boston terrier, some brachycephalic dog breeds have what is referred to as a screw tail. This is a genetic malformation which causes the bony part of the spin forming the tail to have a reduced number of bones (so as the tail is shortened). It is also causes angular fusion to some of the bones making the tail kink or curl.

Should a brachycephalic dog have a screw tail the likelihood is high of having other spinal deformities. These spinal deformities can cause a number of health issues, such as nerve related problems which can cause moving normally difficult, pain along the length of the spin, as well as incontinence.

Skin disease

Mainly around their faces and base of their tails, brachycephalic breeds have deep skin folds all over their bodies. However, these skin folds create a warm and moist environment leading to fungus and bacteria to grow. This can cause immense pain and discomfort. Surgery can help in removing skin folds, but usually frequent and long term bacterial and fungal treatments will be needed.

Dental disease

Brachycephalic breeds are also predisposed to dental issues. They have the same amount of teeth as other breeds, just less room to fit them in as their flattened face reduces the gum area. This leads to the overcrowding of teeth and for them to grown in at odd angles, heightening the risk of food becoming caught between teeth. Food caught between teeth can cause bacteria to grow, leading to the likelihood of infection to the gums surrounding the teeth.

In severe cases, surgery may be needed. For example, extracting teeth can help reduce overcrowding and lower the risk of potential bacteria growth. However, general at home dental care will help to avoid most dental diseases.

Birthing difficulties

Brachycephalic breeds can also face difficulties when giving birth for two reasons. Firstly, the heads and shoulders of her puppies will by much wider than the mother’s hips and birth canal. And secondly, due to the stress and physical exertion of the birthing process it may exacerbate her breathing issues. In many cases veterinary intervention will be needed and will usually result in a caesarean.

Exercise and weight 

Brachycephalic dogs face problems in engaging in normal dog behaviours due to their constricted airways. A study found a third of brachycephalic dogs were unable to walk for more than 10 minutes on a 19 degree Celsius day. They are also 146% more likely to suffer from heat stroke than any other dog breed. These need to be taken into consideration when exercising this breed of dog.

Weight management is important in brachycephalic breeds. Extra weight and obesity can cause their breathing problems to worsen. Managing their weight can be problematic due to their ability to exercise as mentioned above. Finding the right regular exercise they can manage is important both for weight management and for socialisation and simulation they will get from new places. Their diet is also important for managing their weight.

Heat stroke

Brachycephalic dog breed are 146% more likely to suffer from heat stroke than any other dog breed. Dogs primarily cool their body temperature through panting. However, due to their respiratory obstructions they are unable to pant effectively. For brachycephalic dogs to cool themselves 

To move the same amount of air other breeds do when cooling themselves through panting, for brachycephalic breeds it requires extra work. So much so their airways become inflamed and swollen. This inflammation can lead to further issues, such as a more severe obstruction, distress, and further overheating.

If you have a brachycephalic fur baby or are considering having one join your family, remember they will need a higher level of care and regular veterinarian check ups in order to maintain their overall health.

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