bulldog brachycephalic dog breed

Brachycephalic dogs (sometimes misspelled “brachiocephalic”) are among the most popular with canine lovers. Why are these dogs so special? Of course, their endless energy and playful disposition grab many hearts, but it’s their smooshed faces that first get one’s attention and make them stand out among dog breeds. Understanding brachycephalic dogs and the challenges they face can help ensure a healthy pet.

What is a Brachycephalic Dog?

Brachycephalic means “shortened head.” The skull bones of brachycephalic dogs are shorter in length, causing the dog’s face and nose to appear pushed or smooshed in. This physical characteristic is notable in several breeds, including:

While many find the shortened face of a brachycephalic dog irresistible, this condition alters related soft tissue structures that can lead to health issues that these dogs’ owners should know about.

What is Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome?

Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) results from the diminished noses and skulls of affected dogs and is evidenced by several upper airway abnormalities. A brachycephalic dog may suffer from one or more of these:

  • Elongated soft palate: When the soft tissue at the roof of the mouth extends too far into the back of the throat it can cause a blockage in the trachea
  • Stenotic nares: Abnormally small or narrow nostrils that restrict the amount of airflow
  • Everted laryngeal saccules: Small pouches or sacs in the larynx turn outward or are “sucked” into the airway, causing a breathing obstruction
  • Laryngeal collapse: The larynx fails to open wide enough due to chronic stress on the cartilage of the larynx, or voicebox, brought on by other brachycephalic traits
  • Hypoplastic trachea: Abnormally small trachea diameter
  • Nasopharyngeal turbinates: Tissue-covered bone ridges that warm and humidify air when inhaled; when extended behind the nose and into the mouth they can obstruct airflow

Other health issues related to flat-faced breeds include dental troubles caused by cramped teeth, skin infections from skin wrinkles and folds, eye infections and injuries due to shallow eye sockets.

BOAS Symptoms and Treatments

Because BOAS makes breathing through the nostrils difficult, most dogs with this condition find it easier to breathe through their mouths. The number of brachycephalic abnormalities a dog suffers can increase the severity of symptoms.

Mildly affected dogs may have a bit of noisy breathing, most notably after exercising, sneezing, snorting when excited, and snoring when resting or sleeping. Severely affected dogs struggle to breathe and tire quickly from physical activities (may collapse or faint). Additional signs to watch out for include coughing, gagging, and vomiting. These symptoms may worsen during hot or humid weather. Over time, brachycephalic dogs may develop other health issues that can increase inflammation of the airways and strain the heart.

Upon diagnosis, short-term treatments your vet may recommend or prescribe include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, or oxygen therapy. Depending on your pet’s severity of BOAS, your vet may recommend surgery to fix the underlying anatomical abnormalities.

While not every brachycephalic dog will experience these health issues, there are a few things you, as a pet parent, can do to help your pet lessen his risk of developing BOAS.

Caring for Brachycephalic Dogs

One of the best things you can do for your brachycephalic dog is to help him avoid stress and heat with these tips:

  • Keep your pet indoors if it is hot outside, as brachycephalic dogs can easily suffer from heat exhaustion and heatstroke. If it is unavoidable, ensure they have shade and plenty of water.
  • Walk your dog during cooler times of the day, such as early morning or evening.
  • Take your dog on shorter walks.
  • Use a harness instead of a collar to prevent any pressure on his neck.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity can exacerbate BOAS, so you must ensure your pet receives a healthy diet.
  • Exercise your dog daily. Getting your dog up and moving every day will help him stay healthy. However, because brachycephalic dogs struggle with intense physical activity, keep exercise moderate and sessions short.
  • Contact your vet or local veterinary hospital if your brachycephalic dog suffers from heat exhaustion, heatstroke, or has collapsed or fainted.

Grooming a Flat-Faced Dog

A flat-faced dog requires a few grooming techniques not typical of other breeds. Facial skin folds require regular cleaning as they are an optimal breeding ground for bacteria and yeast, leading to skin fold dermatitis, as can friction.

After cleaning with a damp cloth, follow with a dry cloth to remove excess moisture. Some brachycephalic dogs have screw tails with folds. These, too, require attention (daily is best) to prevent fecal contamination and infection. Check your dog’s eyes daily for swelling, squinting, and cloudiness, as these can indicate corneal ulcers. Also, watch for excessive tearing as it could indicate allergies, infection, or eyelid abnormalities.

Cleaning your pet’s ears once or twice a week with a cotton ball or gauze and distilled water should suffice. Apply a moisturizing balm to your dog’s nose several times a week to prevent dryness, cracking, and infection.

Routine nail and oral care (aka teeth brushing) are necessary for your dog’s overall health and well-being. Bathing with a medicated shampoo to clean out the skin folds, rinsing him well, and drying your dog help minimize bacterial growth. These dogs do well with a rotary-style nail grinder.

While brachycephalic dogs require more attention and effort than most breeds, your dedication can help ensure your dog stays healthy and lives his best life.

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