Linda Simon
Dr Linda Simon (MVB MRCVS, University College Dublin)
Pugs are a Brachycephalic breed

Pugs are a Brachycephalic breed

Before man decided to ‘take charge’ of dog breeding, brachycephalic dog breeds did not naturally exist. It is only through the repeated and deliberate inbreeding of dogs to give them more exaggerated features that this situation has arisen. The health of the dog will inevitably begin to suffer as their natural conformation changes dramatically from that of their wolf ancestors and the focus is put on features that might look ‘cute and baby-like’ but have a negative impact on functionality.

The main driving factor behind the creation of the brachycephalic breeds has been the public’s perception of them being ‘more attractive’. The emphasis was always placed on their physical appearance rather than their health or ability. Sadly, this has been to their detriment and we are now realising the serious health implications that this mind-set has caused. While some may not agree with how brachycephalics have come to be, the fact of the matter is that they now make up a large proportion of our canine population and we owe it to them to care for them and improve their health in any way we can.

What Are Brachycephalic Dogs?

The definition of a brachycephalic dog is one that has a short, wide skull. While their skeleton may have shrunk, they still possess all of the same soft tissue and anatomy as any other dog; they simply don’t have enough space for it! They have short snouts, which may be so squashed that they appear flat, or even sunken inwards.

When we compare this to the long snouted German Shepherd or Greyhound (two dolichocephalic or ‘long-skulled breeds’) it is easy to appreciate that they may struggle to breathe in comparison.

What Are the Health Concerns?

Boxer at the veterinarian

Boxers are also a Brachycephalic breed

There are a number of health issues that occur in brachycephalic breeds and the sad truth is that many owners see these issues as ‘normal’ in those that are affected. How negatively a dog’s life will be impacted is variable.

Breathing Problems

The primary issue in these dogs is that many of them have a hard time breathing. This is not only while exercising or during heatwaves, but can also be in their day-to-day life. While one may associate a Pug with cute ‘snores’ and ‘snorts’, the truth is that these noises are an indication that the dog is not able to breathe as it should.

What Is Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS)?

BOAS is a term that describes the breathing issues that our snub-nosed breeds often suffer from. Some dogs may tick every box of the BOAS criteria, while others may only have one or two of the possible issues. BOAS consists of four congenital abnormalities:

  1. Stenotic Nares – These are nostrils that are simply too small for purpose. Airflow is restricted due to the inadequate size. It could be compared to a snorkeller breathing through a snorkelling tube that has been pinched and narrowed.
  2. Elongated Soft Palate – The soft palate is the muscular back portion of the mouth that closes off airways to allow swallowing and prevent choking. When the soft palate is longer than it should be, however, it can close off part of the trachea (windpipe).
  3. Everted Laryngeal Saccules – The saccules are soft tissue masses that occupy the space behind the vocal cords in dogs. When they evert and protrude, this results in less space for air to flow and causes noisy breathing.
  4. Hypoplastic Trachea – A trachea that is not developed as it should be and is too narrow. This inevitably leads to restricted air flow and results in a dog that needs to work harder to get enough oxygen.

Eye Problems

While the eye of a brachycephalic dog is the same as any other dog, the anatomy around it is different and leaves it open to damage and disease. Their eyes are usually set in shallow sockets and they have frequent eyelid defects. A shallow socket means that the eyes appear bulbous and when a dog blinks their tear film may not coat the entire surface, leaving the middle portion dry and uncomfortable.

Eyelid defects, such as Entropion or Ectropion, result in improper eye protection and can themselves directly damage the surface of the eye. Due to their eye issues, many canines will suffer with corneal pigmentation, corneal ulcers and chronic eye infections.

Skin Problems

While brachycephalics will still have as much skin as their similar-sized peers, there is not enough space for it. Due to this, the skin folds and wrinkles in an exaggerated manner, resulting in deep, dark and moist crevices that are prone to irritation and infection. These skin issues are most often seen on the face but can occur in other places, such as above the tail.

Spinal Problems

When viewing an X-ray of the spine of a brachycephalic dog, there are often quite visible differences when compared to a dog that has not been bred to be brachycephalic. Some will have misshapen vertebrae and a curved spine and their mobility can be impaired dramatically.

Birthing Problems

Many breeders of brachycephalic breeds will understand the risks of natural birth and will pre-emptively schedule their pregnant bitches for elective c-sections to avoid the danger of dystocia (difficult labour). This is a controversial practice as many argue that those that are unable to breed naturally should not be bred in the first place as it is putting both mum and pups in real danger.

Why Do Brachycephalic Dogs Exist?

Some may question why animals with such wide-ranging and serious health conditions are here at all. Indeed, from an ethical viewpoint, the continued breeding of these dogs is highly questionable to say the least. While there is a growing understanding of the health issues that they have been proven to suffer from, many continue to remain unaware or will downplay their seriousness. In fact, despite the awareness campaigns being brought out by veterinarians and other welfare advocates, the popularity of these breeds has been steadily on the rise in recent years.

The reason for this is simple; there is a huge demand for these ‘attractive’ dogs that often have confident and charming personalities. Although the veterinary profession has advised against it (and many vet publications are now refusing to publish ads that feature brachycephalics in some cases), we are seeing these breeds more and more in popular advertising campaigns and on merchandise, such as mugs, duvet covers and t-shirts. With the media promoting them left, right and centre, it is little wonder that people are choosing them over the more traditional breeds, such as Labradors and Jack Russell Terriers; who have simply fallen from favour.

Which Dog Breeds Are Brachycephalic?

English Bulldogs are a Brachycephalic breed

The ever popular English Bulldog is Brachycephalic

Quite a few pedigree dogs are classed as brachycephalic and it goes without saying that crossing these dogs with each other to create ‘designer dogs’ does not eliminate the health issues. However, outbreeding them with non-brachycephalics can potentially improve their health, particularly if their conformation changes dramatically. Some examples of brachycephalic breeds include:

Tips for Buying a Brachycephalic Puppy

Whether or not one should choose to buy (or adopt) a brachycephalic puppy is a personal preference though it is strongly encouraged that prospective buyers research what potential health implications this may mean in the future and budget for medical bills that may be substantial (health insurance is strongly advised in all cases, although even the best policy may not cover every eventuality).

While there are calls from some to ban the breeding of these dogs (and Holland has recently outlawed the breeding of those with dramatically snubbed noses), they continue to be some of the most popular pets.

Researching Special Requirements

Of course, being prepared is key and it is always essential to carry out thorough research before making a decision. The best person to consult is the local veterinarian who will impart honest advice (remember that while many breeders are fountains of knowledge, they ultimately need to sell the public their pup in order to generate a profit).

Choosing a Responsible Breeder

Breeders range from the ‘backyard chancers’ who only care about making a quick buck from trendy breeds, to the ‘ultimate professionals’ who always have the pups’ wellbeing at the forefront of their minds. Responsible breeders should be registered with the local Kennel Club and will be able to provide you with canine family trees and a long list of happy customers who have purchased through them previously.

Not only will they provide you with information when buying the pup, they should be keen for you to remain in contact for the duration of the dog’s life. Remember, breeders should welcome and encourage questions from you rather than becoming exasperated when you quiz them on things, such as vaccines, microchips, health tests, etc.

Ask to See Health Scheme Certificates

The best breeders will have ensured that both breeding parents have been properly health tested for those conditions recommended by the Kennel Club. This practice dramatically reduces the risk of the pups inheriting the conditions and is one of the best ways to create a healthy and robust population. Remember, these health tests are not always cheap and this is one of the many reasons why buying from a good breeder ultimately costs more.

Assess the Parents

While owners are not expected to bring along a stethoscope and perform a veterinary-standard check when going to the breeder, there are plenty of things that potential pet owners should be on the lookout for. Though the dad may not always be present, walk away from a breeder that will not show you the mum, as this is a big red flag. Puppies will take after their parents so if you notice that either parent has noisy breathing, red or infected skin, mobility issues, etc., it may be best to look elsewhere.

It is a breeder’s responsibility to only select the healthiest candidates to breed from. Breeders should always be transparent about any medical issues and should inform you if either parent has had to have BOAS surgery (as these dogs should ideally not be used in breeding).

Assessing Red Flags in Puppies

Even when only a couple of months old, there are certain characteristics that should be checked for, including extreme snub noses, pronounced skin folding or irregularly shortened tails. However, many issues do not become obviously apparent until later in life and, for example, most dogs are only diagnosed with BOAS after the age of one.

Taking Precautions

French Bulldog swimming

This Frenchie is keeping cool in the heat!

Owning a brachycephalic dog is a big responsibility and there are a number of things that can be done to improve their quality of life. Here are just a few recommendations that may help:

  • Talk About It – Owners are encouraged to discuss any breed-related issues they spot (such as excessive snoring) with their vet, who may recommend a surgery.
  • Stay Trim – Ensure dogs are maintained at a lean body condition (either a 4 or 5 out of 9 on the Body Condition Scale).
  • Keep Cool – Avoid over-heating in the summer by keeping dogs in the shade and never leaving them unattended in hot cars. These breeds are much more prone to heat stroke than others.
  • Exercise Sensibly – Do not over-exercise these dogs, especially when young and excitable, as those with advanced BOAS can be prone to collapse due to lack of oxygen.
  • Kit Them Out – Avoid neck collars and instead opt for body harnesses that put less pressure on the neck and windpipe.
  • Don’t Be a Frequent Flyer – Only allow these dogs to travel by air if absolutely necessary, as they are at increased risk of death when flying.
  • Remain Calm – Avoid stressful situations when possible, as panting and anxiety can result in respiratory distress in those with breathing difficulties.