One black French Bulldog and one Fawn French bulldog

Brachycephalic dog breeds are more likely to suffer respiratory distress.

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Brachycephalic dog breeds

By Nick Whittle Author

Updated on the

The term “brachycephalic” refers to a dog (or other animal) that is “short-headed”. A brachycephalic dog tends to suffer with breathing difficulties because its soft palate obstructs its trachea, or airway.

Dogs of the brachycephalic group include the Boston Terrier, Boxer, Pug, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso and Pekingese. These dogs are more likely than most to suffer respiratory distress, and in the summer months they are more likely to succumb to heatstroke and exhaustion.

Some of us may assume a brachycephalic dog is one that has an illness. But such dogs have actually been bred for centuries to look the way they do. The owner of a squashed-face breed MUST take special care to avoid the dog becoming ill.

What are symptoms of brachycephalic syndrome?

Dogs such as the Boston Terrier and Lhasa Apso suffer continuously with brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS). The condition is caused by the following congenital abnormalities:

  • Elongated soft palate which restricts airflow
  • Deformed (usually squashed) nostrils which prevent the dog’s inhaling
  • Hypoplastic (misshapen) trachea which restricts airflow

Symptoms of brachycephalic airway syndrome include:

  • Loud and anxious snorts
  • Difficulty eating
  • Gagging and regurgitation
  • Intolerance to exercise 
  • Loud snoring
  • Agitated coughs and wheezing

How is brachycephalic syndrome treated?

The only way to treat a dog with BOAS is to enlist the services of a veterinary surgeon. Vets will perform surgery on the soft palate and stenotic nares (nostrils) in order to shorten the palate and open up the dog’s airways. Doing so also reduces the chance of the dog inhaling food as it eats.

Modern veterinary medical treatments include the use of lasers. Employing the laser surgery technique prevents excessive surgical bleeds. Recovery times of dogs treated with laser instruments is shorter than that of animals which go 'under the knife'. However, some vets do not offer corrective laser surgery.

Are you wondering how to choose a good veterinary? Look no more, we have the answer for you

How much does brachycephalic surgery cost? 

Brachycephalic surgery is not cheap. The average cost of the procedure - if performed in the UK - will cost around £2,000. The cost includes anaesthesia, surgery, post-operative care and medications required to aid the dog’s recovery. 

How do you care for a brachycephalic dog? 

If you cannot afford to have your dog treated, or you do not want the dog to be operated on, you will have to manage your dog’s wellbeing with great care. Short-term prevention of overheating and exhaustion are a necessary obligation for owners of brachycephalic breeds.

Preventative measures include: 

  • Avoiding your dog’s stress and overheating 
  • Avoiding the use of a collar 
  • Making sure you do not over-feed your dog 
  • Treating immediately any skin lesions and rashes you may observe 

Why do brachycephalic dogs overheat? 

A warm air temperature exacerbates the symptoms of BOAS. Dogs have far fewer sweat glands than humans and so must regulate their body temperature by panting. Clearly, if the dog's ability to pant is reduced, the animal will be less likely to stay cool.

The most common reason for dog panting is to cool off, but it could also be because of stress or pain. 

Brachycephalic dogs that get too warm will tend to pant more heavily and have a glazed expression. If nothing is done to cool them down, they may start to vomit, drool excessively and be unable to walk. If an owner ignores the problem still further the dog may endure seizures before succumbing to heat exhaustion and dying.

Can brachycephalic dogs swim? 

Most brachycephalic dogs are too heavy. In other words they have large bodies and short legs. They were not bred to swim, and if placed in water they tend to sink. Furthermore, a brachycephalic dog cannot keep its head above the surface of the water and is liable to drown. Any dog with legs too short in proportion to their body (such as Dachshunds and Bulldogs) does not swim well.

How do you help bulldog breathe better? 

Without the aid of surgery the owner of a dog with BOAS must care for their pet on a daily basis to ensure its breathing is calm and its body temperature stays within safe limits.

How can I calm my dog's breath? 

A dog that is anxious for any reason may become vocal and physically agitated. In addition to these observed changes of behaviour, a brachycephalic dog will pant excessively and begin to vomit. Short-nosed dogs are very noisy breathers but become even noisier when they are unwell and troubled. Know the signs and act!

How can I help my dog with breathing problems? 

In order to calm a dog with breathing problems, you should remain calm and confident. If you become agitated you are likely to upset your dog still further.

Ensure the dog is lying in a cool and quiet place. Try to massage its back, but avoid massaging its face and nose. If necessary, apply a cool flannel to its fur. You may even try to play calm classical music to it. If your dog does not respond well to these measures you should contact your local vet

Your best course of action would be preventative measures, such as NOT over-stimulating or over-exciting your dog. You should also avoid long walks, especially in the summer months.

A vet may prescribe steroids for a dog that is continually agitated. 

Why can't brachycephalic dogs travel by plane?

The laws that govern our ability to travel by air with our doggy friends have changed. Today, very few airlines allow any breed of dog to travel either in the cabin or in the hold. Brachycephalic dogs are not permitted to travel with any airline, because cases of animal death have revealed that BOAS is exacerbated at altitude.

Brachycephalic dogs suffer with long-term breathing difficulties, and many charities around the world question the wisdom of breeders continuing to produce litters of boxers, pugs and other such squashed-faced breeds. However, many also argue that if the dog is well-looked after, and its condition is treated sympathetically, the squashed-face dog may live a long and happy life.

The danger faced by many dogs though is one of their owner's lack of understanding of the canine condition and even – in some cases – maltreatment. Dogs of brachycephalic breeds require constant attention and care.

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