Brachy-what? If you’re the owner of a flat-faced, fun-loving dog or cat, you may be familiar with the term “brachycephalic,” which translates to “short-headed.” These pets are known for their unique facial conformation, which is characterized by a flat muzzle accompanied by a pushed-in nose and, often, plenty of wrinkles. These adorable pets are obviously loved by many, but what’s the story behind their development, and do they have special requirements from their owners? Keep reading to find out more about these unusual pets. 

Why do brachycephalic pets exist?

Flat-faced dogs and cats are the results of careful and deliberate breeding. It’s thought that the characteristic short head was selected as a desirable trait in the English bulldog, to give them a fighting advantage. Others believe brachycephalic pets were bred simply for their looks and their round heads, which resembled human infants. Regardless of the original reason, brachycephalic pets continue to be favorites among pet lovers. Some common brachycephalic breeds include the:

  • English bulldog
  • French bulldog
  • Pug
  • Shih tzu 
  • Pekingese
  • Lhasa apso
  • Boston terrier
  • Boxer
  • Bullmastiff
  • Persian cat
  • Himalayan cat

Do brachycephalic pets have health concerns?

Because of their facial conformation, brachycephalic pets are subject to breathing difficulties and associated conditions. Brachycephalic airway syndrome—also known as brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS)—is common in these breeds. The syndrome is characterized by a combination of oral, nasal, and other airway abnormalities that lead to difficulty breathing, or airway obstruction. On examination of the upper airway, your veterinarian may note:

  • Stenotic (i.e., narrowed) nostrils
  • Elongated soft palate
  • Everted laryngeal saccules
  • Hypoplastic (i.e., underdeveloped) trachea

Typically, severe BOAS signs are associated with more pronounced physical abnormalities.

Although adorable, the wrinkles that adorn may brachycephalic pets can also cause problems. Skin folds collect moisture, which creates the perfect environment for bacteria and yeast to overgrow. Many brachycephalic breeds are affected by skin-fold dermatitis in wrinkly areas—namely the face and tail base. 

Additionally, the brachycephalic skull shape is characterized by shallow orbits, which cause the eyes of brachycephalic pets to be more pronounced. That trademark bug-eyed expression unfortunately means that their eyes are more susceptible to injury, including scratches, abrasions, and proptosis.

How do I know if my brachycephalic pet has a problem?

Most brachycephalic pets with BOAS or other airway problems will typically exhibit signs that include short, shallow breathing, snoring, loud breathing, exercise intolerance, or a blue mouth or tongue (i.e., cyanosis). Owners may also notice gastrointestinal upset signs, such as reflux, nausea, retching, or decreased appetite. If you ever believe your pet is having difficulty breathing or you notice cyanosis, head to WesVet Animal Hospital or your nearest 24/7 veterinary emergency immediately. 

Our veterinary team can diagnose BOAS by performing a thorough physical examination that includes close evaluation of the upper airway. Most pets require sedation or general anesthesia for an accurate and thorough upper airway examination.

Skin fold dermatitis is typically characterized by a yeasty odor and brown discharge in locations of wrinkles. The associated skin infection may also be itchy, causing your pet to rub their face on the ground, or lick and chew areas they can reach. 

Eye issues can cause redness, ocular discharge, squinting, tearing, or blinking. More serious problems, such as proptosis, are evident as a bulging, red eye, and are a medical emergency.

How can I help my brachycephalic pet?

If your pet is diagnosed with BOAS or any upper airway abnormality, our veterinary team may recommend surgical correction, which can include widening the nostrils, partial soft palate resection, or laryngeal saccule modification. Depending on your pet’s physical condition and severity of clinical signs, they may need a referral to a board-certified veterinary surgeon. 

Because of their unique facial anatomy, brachycephalic pets require special care and attention. Owners should fit their pets with a chest harness for leash walks, rather than a neck collar that may restrict breathing. Brachycephalic pets are also sensitive to exercise and hot, humid conditions, which may exacerbate their signs, or quickly lead to heatstroke. Pay close attention when exercising with your pet outside on warm days. If the weather is especially hot or humid, consider leaving your pet safely in your air-conditioned home.  

Clean and dry your brachycephalic pet’s wrinkles daily to avoid accumulation of infection-causing bacteria. Pay special attention to wrinkles around their face and tail base. You should also take care around your pet’s eyes, since they are more vulnerable to injury. 

At WesVet Animal Hospital, we love our flat-nosed, smoosh-faced, adorable patients. We are dedicated to ensuring your brachycephalic pet experiences a great quality of life and that they receive the care they deserve. If you have additional questions about brachycephaly, or wish to schedule an appointment for a consultation, contact us here