Dr. Katharine North: The challenges of brachycephalic pets


The word brachycephalic comes from Latin, with ‘brachy’ referring to short and ‘cephalic’ referring to the head. There are several breeds of dogs and cats that fall into this category. Bulldogs (English, French, or American), Boston Terriers, Pugs, Pekingese, and Bull Mastiffs are a few examples. Persian, Himalayan, and Burmese are the more common cat breeds. Many of these breeds are experiencing a surge in their numbers because of their cute baby-like faces, and the increasing ease of getting them.

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Brachycephalic pets can suffer a number of health problems that can worsen as they get older. Their short noses create deep folds of the skin on the face that are prone to infections if not kept clean. Eyes that are more prominent, creating the desired bug-eyed look, are more likely to get scratched or become too dry. Their shorter jaws, with the same number of teeth as longer-nosed breeds, means teeth are crowded together – causing earlier dental disease. These are manageable problems that are rarely life-threatening.

There is, however, a much more worrying problem with these delightful breeds that can seriously compromise their quality of life, and can in some cases cause death. Brachycephalic Syndrome is a combination of problems affecting the respiratory system. Firstly, the trachea, or windpipe, is much smaller in diameter than normal. Secondly, the soft palate is long and can hang down into the trachea, hampering air flow and causing snoring-like noises. Thirdly, the nasal folds are pinched-in, minimizing the ability for air to move. You can experience this yourself by pinching your nose partly closed and breathing. The fourth change is when two pouches near the top of the airway get pulled out by the force of breathing.

Some pets live quite sedentary lives, and the most their owners notice is the noisy breathing. However, any stresses like heat, exercise or anxiety can cause respiratory distress which can require oxygen masks or be fatal. As pets age, the soft tissues get floppier and fat is often deposited around the airways, making the breathing worse. While some countries are discussing not breeding these breeds, Canada is not one of them. Despite their challenges, brachycephalic breeds can be very rewarding pets to have and many are an absolute joy to see as patients. To stop breeding completely would be a shame and a loss, so it is important for us protect the welfare of these lovely dogs and cats. Obviously, it is important for people looking for new puppies or kittens to consider whether the breed and the higher-than-normal care requirements are right for them. Next, it is important to find responsible breeders that are not breeding for the extremes of a short nose.

If you decide to take up the challenge and enjoy the rewards of owning these breeds, there are ways to help your pet breathe easier. Surgeries to improve the opening of the nose and length of the soft palate are available. These surgeries are recommended at about six months of age (they can be done at the time of spay or neuter) to minimize the damage done by the negative pressures of difficult breathing, and to maximize the life enjoyment, exercise tolerance and social development of your pet. The benefits of the surgery can still be seen if performed in adulthood, so ask your veterinarian whether this procedure is right for your new puppy or your well-loved adult. They can also advise you on the management of the other less dramatic health challenges so that you and your pets can breathe easy about their health and quality of life!

Dr. Katharine North has been a resident and active participant in the Fort St. John community since her family immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom as a child. Dr. North spent many hours at the North Peace Veterinary Clinic as a student and joined the practice as a veterinary associate upon graduation. 

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