Brachycephalic (i.e., flat-faced) pets are irresistibly cute and charming companions—but their trademark features put them at risk for serious health conditions and several life-threatening emergencies. Learn how to keep your sassy, snorting, smush-faced friend happy and healthy with these top tips from Greenfield Veterinary Clinic.

#1: Speak to your veterinarian about brachycephalic airway syndrome

First, what defines a pet as “brachycephalic”—a Greek term that literally means “short head?” Dog and cat breeds who have a wide or broad skull and a short—sometimes almost non-existent—muzzle are classified as brachycephalic. Such breeds include the English and French bulldog, Boston terrier, pug, pekingese, boxer, shih tzu, and Persian cats.

Sadly, these iconic breeds pay a steep price for their unmistakable look—their respiratory health. Shortened muzzles compromise the airway, resulting in a collection of structural issues known as brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS). Most flat-faced pets experience one or more of the following abnormalities:

  • Narrow nostrils — Unlike a normal nose, a brachycephalic pet’s nose has narrow nostrils (i.e., stenotic nares) that can be slit-like or completely closed. 
  • Narrow windpipe — Despite their large heads, many breeds have an unusually small windpipe (i.e., hypoplastic trachea), and they are forced to work harder to move air in and out.
  • Elongated soft palate — Excessive soft tissue in the throat can obstruct their airway, creating excessive noise (e.g., snorting, rasping, or gargling sounds) and air flow resistance.
  • Everted saccules — These small tissue pouches near the vocal cords sometimes face the wrong direction and are sucked into the airway during inhalation.  

Each of these conditions compromises your pet’s ability to take in oxygen and regulate their body temperature—a potentially life-threatening hazard. And, because brachycephalic pets often have more than one abnormality, everyday life can be a struggle. The best option for improving a BOAS-affected pet’s quality of life is corrective surgery to widen the respiratory pathways, and you should ask your veterinarian about your pet’s airway health and whether medical intervention is necessary. Always monitor your pet for respiratory distress.

#2: Keep your brachycephalic pet cool and calm to prevent heat stress

Brachycephalic pets generally have big personalities and love being the center of attention, but too much excitement can worsen their breathing issues and raise their body temperature, creating a dangerous distress cycle. Overexcited pets may wheeze, gag, choke, or reverse sneeze as they struggle for oxygen, and may collapse or briefly lose consciousness.

Warm weather can trigger the same vicious cycle. Laborious but ineffective panting can lead to rapid exhaustion, increasing body temperatures, and escalating emotional and physical distress—a fatal combination known as heat stroke. 

Protect your brachycephalic pet by avoiding overexcitement whenever possible (e.g., speak in a soft voice, and reward calm behavior), strictly limiting outdoor activity during warm weather, and never leaving them unattended outdoors or in a parked car.

#3: Maintain your brachycephalic pet’s dental health

Behind their signature underbite, flat-faced breeds often have serious dental health issues. Their shortened or misshapen jaw causes conditions such as malocclusion (i.e., misalignment), overcrowded teeth, and excessive gum tissue, leading to hair, food, and debris being trapped in hard-to-reach crevices and below the gum line, and increasing plaque and tartar buildup. They therefore need more than routine at-home care, such as tooth brushing, for dental health maintenance, and require frequent dental cleanings under anesthesia to remove damaging debris, extract malpositioned or broken teeth, and prevent or slow periodontal disease.  

#4: Care for your brachycephalic pet’s skin

Without routine care, your pet’s adorable wrinkles and folds can trap bacteria and lead to itchy, uncomfortable infections and irritating skin conditions. Many brachycephalic breeds require a daily skin regimen to decrease yeast or bacteria buildup and remove irritating airborne allergens. In addition to their facial folds, pay close attention to your pet’s feet and hind end, especially if their body shape makes these areas difficult to reach (e.g., English bulldogs). Ask your Greenfield Veterinary Clinic veterinarian for personalized advice and product recommendations.

#5: Protect your pet’s peepers

Your pet’s prominent eyes are perched inside unusually shallow sockets, which creates that signature wide-eyed expression, but can threaten their ocular health.

Brachycephalic pets are prone to painful eye injuries, including scratches, punctures, and ulcerations from debris or other pets, chronic conditions such as dry eye, and proptosis (i.e., an emergency condition where the eyeball is displaced from its socket).

Guard your pet’s vision by monitoring their activities, using protective eyewear (e.g., RexSpecs), and avoiding stressful situations that could trigger proptosis. 

#6: Maintain your pet at a healthy weight

Brachycephalic pets are obesity-prone, putting them at risk for a reduced life span, numerous chronic health issues (e.g., arthritis, cancer, kidney disease, and orthopedic injuries), and further compromising their respiratory health.

Ensure your brachycephalic pet maintains a healthy weight by routinely assessing their body condition score, providing adequate nutrition (i.e., a portion-controlled, veterinarian-recommended diet, and limited treats), and regular safe exercise. 

Brachycephalic pets are loveable, engaging, and affectionate companions, but their unique needs and challenges can interfere with their quality of life. Show your flat-faced friend some heart-shaped love by taking a proactive approach to their specialized care. Contact Greenfield Veterinary Clinic to schedule your pet’s next appointment.