Brachycephalic dogs – Everything you need to know
Flat-faced, short-nosed with large doting eyes, these types of dog are instantly recognisable and are becoming increasingly more pup-ular. Some of the UK’s most beloved breeds are classed as brachycephalic, such as French Bulldogs and Pugs, who boast the most adorable squashy faces.
This cute, flat profile is what makes these types of dog so sought after, however, these traits are exactly what causes them to have so many health issues.
What does brachycephalic mean?
Coined from two Greek words, the term perfectly summarises the appearance of these breeds, with ‘brachy’ meaning short and ‘cephalic’ meaning head. However, many just use the term ‘flat-faced’, which is much easier to remember!
Several animals can be classed as brachycephalic, for instance, dogs, cats, and rabbits. Essentially, the term just refers to the shape of the skull being shorter than normal, causing the animal to have a muzzle that’s flat and pushed inwards.
Typically, the bottom jaw will be longer than the upper, often causing the bottom jaw to stick out. This creates a squashy face covered in wrinkles that is paw-stively adorable.
What breeds are classed as brachycephalic?
- French Bulldogs
- English Bulldogs
- Boston Terriers
- Shih Tzus
- King Charles Spaniels
- Dogue de Bordeaux
- Lhasa Apsos
(This list of pooches is not exhaustive).
A brief history of the growing pup-ularity of flat-faced breeds
Dating way back to the 13th century, humans were breeding dogs selectively for their own personal reasons. Before they became the gentle, loving dogs we know today, some brachycephalic breeds were bred to have a fighting nature.
Bulldogs were involved in the fighting sport ‘bull-baiting’, which involves the dog creeping towards the bull and attempting to bite it in the head area. This is where the bulldog’s name originated from. To improve their fighting abilities, the breed was selectively bred to develop a shorter, flatter snout as this creates a stronger jaw that would be better for fighting.
It is also theorised that dog owners in ancient times desired a small, squashy, flat-faced dog with those large ‘puppy dog eyes’, because these traits reminded them of human infants. Naturally, people find babies cute, so breeding dogs to have similar traits is purely for cuteness and general aesthetic reasons.
Clearly the look of brachycephalic breeds is something we still find incredibly endearing to this day, with their popularity ever increasing despite the many associated health risks.
Why are brachycephalic breeds still so popular today?
A 2020 study into the skyrocketing pup-ularity of brachycephalic breeds revealed that potential pet owners are initially attracted to the distinctive appearance of these dogs. After all, they are squashy and small with big loving eyes, who wouldn’t find this absolutely adorable?
However, even though many were originally there for the aesthetic, most people in the study reported that they would get the same breed again or recommend the breed to a first-time dog owner.
The number one reason for this is the paw-sitive behavioural characteristics these owners have experienced with their dogs, many describing flat-faced breeds as fun, gentle, loving, and loyal. Paired with the view that these breeds are relatively ‘lazy’, it means they seem perfect for the dog paw-rent who has little time, space, or desire for an overly active lifestyle.
However, please note that these misconceptions can lead to some brachycephalic dogs not getting the correct amount of exercise. Taking the dog for a walk doesn’t only provide physical activity, it offers dogs plenty of mental stimulation too. Staring at the same four walls day-in-day-out will be extremely boring, so a daily dog walk is essential!
The study reported that many owners felt strongly that these breeds have several amazing attributes, with their fun personalities and low maintenance routines being the main ones. Despite the health risks associated with brachycephalic breeds, many felt like the numerous positive qualities that the dogs have make dealing with the negatives totally worth it.
What are the health risks for brachycephalic dogs?
Despite the distinctive qualities in flat-faced breeds making them super adorable, the likelihood that they will suffer from numerous health risks because of this appearance is high.
Eugenics (selectively breeding dogs together who have desirable traits) is extremely prevalent in the canine world, and whilst this can make the breed more subjectively ‘cute’, it can cause some serious impacts on their health. These breeds are prone to several health issues anyway, but when breeders try to exaggerate their features for fashion reasons, these issues are only intensified.
An incredibly common condition flat-faced breeds are prone to is Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). Many flat-faced dogs will suffer from some of the symptoms of BOAS, even if it isn’t severe.
Symptoms of this condition can be quite commonly overlooked as just being typical characteristics of the breed, when realistically it means your dog is having difficulties with their breathing. If you do own a brachycephalic breed, it is crucial that you are aware of this condition so you can tell if your pooch needs help.
Why do brachycephalic breeds get BOAS?
The squashed, flat face may look cute, but it causes many undesirable anatomical problems for your dog, all of which will interfere with your dog’s ability to breathe regularly. These anatomical abnormalities are:
Elongated soft palate
The soft palate is the muscular but soft area of the roof of the mouth. In many brachycephalic dogs this can be too long for the mouth to the point that it extends into the airways and blocks the windpipe.
Brachycephalic breeds often have abnormally narrow/small nostrils which limits the amount of air a dog can take in during inhalation.
This means that the trachea (windpipe) has an abnormally small diameter, which again decreases airflow.
Everted laryngeal saccules
The laryngeal saccules are sacs of tissue located in front of the vocal cords. As these dogs must work much harder to bring air into their lungs, the laryngeal saccules get dragged down into the trachea, meaning airflow is partially blocked.
Signs your dog is struggling with BOAS
- Noisy breathing
- Struggling to cool down
- Difficulty recovering after exercise
- Blue coloured gums (from lack of oxygen)
- Sleep apnoea – this is a condition shared with humans, while asleep your dog will temporarily stop breathing and jolt awake
If you own a brachycephalic breed, please be aware that these signs are not something to be dismissed as normal breed characteristics. Snorting is common in flat-faced dogs, and many find it endearing, but in reality, it's a sign that your dog can’t breathe sufficiently.
Other health problems brachycephalic breeds are prone to:
As these dogs have a much smaller jaw but still the same number of teeth, their teeth can overlap and become cramped causing extreme pain.
The extra wrinkles and folds around their faces are one of the features that we find so cute, but these crevices are perfect locations for infections to manifest.
Brachycephalic dog breeds have very shallow eye sockets causing their eyes to bulge out slightly, creating that ‘puppy dog eyes’ effect that we love. However, this means their eyes are much more susceptible to injuries and infections, such as conjunctivitis.
Some brachycephalic breeds, commonly King Charles Spaniels, have a significantly more compressed skull shape. This creates an issue as the smaller size of their skull does not match up with the size of their brain, leading to major pressure and discomfort.
Problems in birth
Many of these breeds have a relatively large head, for example the French Bulldog. As a result of this, a natural birth may be difficult and cause complications.
Dogs try and regulate their temperature through panting, but the abnormal face structure of brachycephalic breeds means their airways are tight and panting becomes ineffective. Therefore, they are more at risk to heatstroke than other breeds.
Some of the issues brachycephalic breeds are susceptible to can be made much worse through factors such as overexertion, overexcitement, excessive heat, and obesity. Formulating a controlled, appropriate exercise routine alongside feeding a healthy diet are key in aiding your dog’s breathing and preventing health concerns.
Helping your brachycephalic dog
Primarily, the problems these breeds encounter are caused by airway obstruction, so the main way a vet can help is by unblocking the airways. This can be achieved by surgically shortening the soft palate and widening the nares, both for increased airflow.
Ways to help at home
- Knowing the signs of BOAS so you can get your dog help promptly
- Limiting your dog’s exposure to heat
- Using a harness instead of a collar to prevent pressure on the airways
- Make sure exercise is not too strenuous and is catered specifically to your dog’s needs
- Excitement can worsen breathing difficulties so try training your dog self-control so they can manage their giddiness
- Managing your dog’s weight by choosing a healthy dog food and controlling their portions
If you own a brachycephalic breed, it is essential that you are attentive to the dif-fur-ent needs these dogs have compared to other breeds. Obesity is one of the biggest factors that influence your flat-faced dog to have health complications, so it’s crucial that you keep your pup at their recommended weight.
This can be achieved through feeding your dog a healthy, natural diet. Pure is packed with goodness, with a totally natural ingredient list with added vitamins and minerals that are all there to ensure your dog is getting the nutrients they need whilst maintaining their ideal weight.
We are keen to provide your pooch with a diet that is healthy, delicious and will keep your furry friend as happy as can be!
Considering getting a brachycephalic dog
It’s no question that brachycephalic dog breeds are great, often described as quirky, fun, and affectionate. Despite this, most flat-faced dog breeds will unfortunately require medical intervention at some point in their lives to enable them to live healthier and happier.
Healthcare is extremely pricey for these dogs, with many requiring surgery. So, if you are considering getting a brachycephalic breed, it’s fundamental that you factor in the expensive vet bills that come with the cute face.
Sadly, many brachycephalic breeds end up in rescue centres. Several owners are quick to get these breeds because they’re trendy and cute with a low maintenance routine, seemingly ideal for a sedentary lifestyle.
However, this means that many people aren’t clued up about the potential health risks these breeds are prone to. Consequently, numerous brachycephalic breeds are left in rescue centres as many owners don’t have the means to maintain these frequent vet visits.
These breeds have a lot to offer and owning one will be rewarding, fun and full of love. Nevertheless, if you are considering getting a brachycephalic dog you must do your research and know what to expect.
- Localisation of canine brachycephaly using an across breed mapping approach PLOS ONE, 5, (3), March 2010, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009632
- Epidemiological associations between brachycephaly and upper respiratory tract disorders in dogs attending veterinary practices in England Canine Genetics and Epidemiology, 2, (10), July 2015, doi: 10.1186/s40575-015-0023-8
- Consequences and management of canine brachycephaly in veterinary practice: Perspectives from Australian veterinarians and veterinary specialists Animals, 9, (3), December 2018, doi:10.3390/ani9010003
- Come for the looks, stay for the personality? A mixed methods investigation of reacquisition and owner recommendation of Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Pugs PLOS One, 15 (8), August 2020, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0237276