Most people are not familiar with the term "Brachycephalic,"
but if you own a Pug, Boston Terrier, Pekingese, Boxer,
Bulldog, Shih tzu or any one of the other breeds with
"pushed in" faces, you should become familiar with this
word. The word comes from Greek roots "Brachy,"
meaning short and "cephalic," meaning head.
Brachycephalic dogs have been bred so as to possess a
normal lower jaw, that is, one in proportion to their body
size, and a compressed upper jaw. In producing this cosmetic
appearance, we have compromised these animals in many
important ways and you, as an owner, must be familiar with
the special needs of your pet.
Brachycephalic breeds are characterized by "brachycephalic
respiratory syndrome," which affects the different areas
of the respiratory tract. Fortunately, most dogs do not
suffer from all aspects of the syndrome but you should be
aware of which your particular pet may have.
- This is a fancy name for narrowed nostrils. The
brachycephalic dogs begins by having very small nasal
openings for breathing. If this is severe, surgical
correction is possible.
ELONGATED SOFT PALATE
- It is difficult to fit the soft tissues of the
canine mouth and throat into the brachycephalic's short
face. As a result, the soft palate, which separates nasal
passage from oral cavity, flaps loosely down into the throat
creating snorting sounds. Virtually all brachycephalics
suffer from this but actual respiratory distress is rare
except in English Bulldogs. The English Bulldog tends to
have more severe symptoms in almost all aspects of
brachycephalic syndrome. Excess barking or panting may lead
to swelling in the throat which can, in turn, lead to
trouble. Again, the soft palate can be surgically trimmed.
- The brachycephalic dog's windpipe may be
dangerously narrowed in places. This condition creates
tremendous anesthetic risk and should be ruled out by chest
radiographs prior to any surgical procedures.
SACCULES - The
normal larynx has two small pockets called “ventricles” or “saccules.”
When a dog has increased effort in breathing, over time
these little pockets will actually turn inside out inside
the throat. When this occurs, the protuberances need to be
surgically snipped. In fact, this finding indicates that
surgery for the stenotic nares and elongated soft palate is
also warranted lest it progress to a full laryngeal
- Because of all these upper respiratory
obstructions, the brachycephalic dog is an inefficient
panter. A dog with a more conventional face and throat is
able to pass air quickly over the tongue through panting.
Saliva evaporates from the tongue as air is passed across
and the blood circulating through the tongue is efficiently
cooled and circulated back to the rest of the body.
In the brachycephalic dog, so much extra work is required
to move the same amount of air that the airways become
inflamed and swollen. This leads to a more severe
obstruction, distress, and further over-heating.
BRACHYCEPHALIC DOGS ARE
LIKELY CANDIDATES FOR HEAT STROKE.
Altogether, the upper airways of the brachycephalic dog
compromises his or her ability to take in air. Under normal
conditions the compromise is not great enough to cause a
problem; however, an owner should take care not to let the
dog become grossly overweight or get too hot in the summer
months. Be aware of what degree of snorting and sputtering
is usual for your individual pet plus, should your pet
require general anesthesia or sedation, your vet may want to
take extra precautions or take radiographs prior to assess
the severity of the syndrome. Anesthetic risk is higher than
usual in these breeds, though under most circumstances the
necessary extra precautions are readily managed by most
To be clear, brachycephalic syndrome can be progressive
if it is not corrected at an early stage. Severely affected
dogs can actually experience collapse of the larynx and
require a permanent tracheostomy (a hole in the throat for
With most of the nasal bones compacted, brachycephalic
dogs tend to have trouble with the way their eyes seat in
First, recognize the prominence of the eyes on these
dogs. The boney eye sockets are very shallow. This means
that any blow to the back of the head, even a fairly minor
one, can cause an eye to pop from its socket and require
surgical replacement. This can happen also with too much
pulling against the leash if the pet is wearing a collar.
You may wish to consider a harness for your pet.
Sometimes, the eyes are so prominent that the lids cannot
close all the way over the eyes. This will lead to
irritation and drying of the center of the eye unless
surgical correction is performed. If you cannot tell by
watching your pet blink, watch as your pet sleeps. Dogs who
sleep without closing their eyes all the way could do with
Eyelid problems are common in these breeds. Look for
persistent wetness around the eyes. In some dogs, the shape
of the eyelids prevents normal tear drainage and there is an
overflow. This problem cannot be corrected surgically and is
not uncomfortable for the pet; however, there is a more
serious condition which looks similar. This second condition
involves the rolling inward of the eyelids such that the
lashes rub on the eye. Surgery may be needed to correct this
Chronic irritation will show as a pigmented area on the
eye surface, especially on the side nearest the nose. This
is hard to see without a bright light but if it is noted, a
search for the cause is warranted. Depending on the location
of the pigmentation, surgery may be recommended.
The normal dog has 42 teeth in its mouth. The
brachycephalic dog also has 42 teeth but a lot less space to
fit them in. This means that the teeth will be crowded and
growing in at odd angles which, in turn, traps food debris
and leads to periodontal disease at a far younger age than
in non-brachycephalics. The earlier you begin using home
care dental products, the longer you will be able to
postpone full dentistry under general anesthesia.
Skin fold infections are common amid the facial folds of
the brachycephalic breeds. Be sure to examine these areas
periodically for redness. The broad headed nature of these
breeds makes reproduction a tricky matter as Caesarean
section is frequently needed. Difficult labor is common and,
as surgical assistance is often necessary, it is important
not to breed females with tracheal stenosis (see above).
Breeding is best left to the experts.
Altogether, the brachycephalic breeds show plenty of
personality and intelligence just as all dogs do but because
of their special needs, they require some extra knowledge of
their owners. If you have any questions about your
brachycephalic dog, please do not hesitate to call your
veterinarian if you have further questions.