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Brachycephalic Dogs: What do I need to know?

Updated: May 11, 2023

What is a brachycephalic breed?

A brachycephalic breed is any breed that has a broad, short skull and a corresponding flat muzzle and nose. All dogs that you would think of as ‘short nosed’ or ‘squishy faced’ are brachycephalic. There are different degrees of brachycephaly, with some breeds being more extreme than others. Popular brachycephalic breeds include the French Bulldog, Pug, British Bulldog, Boston Terrier, Shih Tzu and Boxer.

The French Bulldog, British Bulldog and Pug, are generally classed as ‘extremely brachycephalic’ breeds because their degree of brachycephaly is more pronounced than the others, meaning they have the shortest skulls and flattest faces of all the ‘brachy’ breeds. Whilst the health problems that can affect brachycephalic dogs can occur in any short-nosed breed, these three breeds are by far the most extremely affected and need particular attention.

What’s the problem with being brachycephalic?

Unfortunately, these cute little dogs are very prone to some serious and even life-threatening conditions that are a result of their genetics and the way the breed looks.

These include:

  • Overheating, leading to life-threatening heat stroke

  • Sleep apnoea due to extreme snoring

  • Slipped discs and malformations of the spine (linked to the screw-tail gene in many brachy breeds)

  • Eye ulceration, cherry eye and eyelid issues

  • Gastrointestinal issues including Inflammatory Bowel Disease

  • Skin fold infections, skin allergies, food allergies and ear infections

Some of these conditions are so common that people have started to regard these problems as ‘normal for this breed’. Specialist brachycephalic vets are demonstrating that all extremely brachycephalic dogs will benefit from surgery to help improve their breathing, snoring, heat regulation and regurgitation issues and improve their quality of life. Snoring and not being able to exercise are not normal for any dog, contrary to popular belief. They can be a sign that the dog is living a stressful life where they struggle to breathe.

What do I need to be aware of if I opt for a ‘Brachy Breed’?

Brachy dogs continue to be popular family pets all around the world. They are friendly, funny dogs who love spending time with their humans and fit perfectly into city lifestyles. If you are in love with a brachy breed and ready for the extra responsibility that comes with these dogs, here are the biggest things to get prepared for:

Can I afford a brachycephalic breed?

There are many extra expenses that come with owning one of these dogs, many of which aren’t talked about enough!

  • Aircon bills – if you live in a hot place or your dog doesn’t tolerate heat well, you may have to put the aircon on for them! This is an often-forgotten extra cost to having a brachy.

  • Higher pet insurance premiums – Many policies will have specific rules for brachy breeds including higher premiums or exclusions for claims on certain conditions. Always read the fine print carefully to work out the true cost of your pet insurance.

  • Vet bills – Brachys tend to visit the vet more than other dogs. You should be prepared to spend extra money on chronic health conditions each year, such as itchy skin and ears, tummy upsets and eye conditions, on top of regular parasite preventatives and annual vaccinations.

  • Airway surgery – The majority of French Bulldog, Pug and British Bulldog puppies would benefit from airway surgery at 6-12 months old (usually done at the same time as desexing). It is essential to factor this significant cost into your budget when planning for a puppy. The options range from simple nostril widening to radical soft palate and tonsil surgery. Depending on what your puppy needs, costs range from $2000-$15000.

  • Spinal surgery - French Bulldogs and Boston Terriers in particular are very prone to 'slipped discs' in their spine - particularly if they have any spinal abnormalities such as hemivertebrae (which are common in both breeds). Spinal surgery is often an emergency procedure and could cost $4000-$15000.

Am I prepared for the responsibility of brachy parenting?

There are some tough realities to being a pet parent to a brachy dog. These are all manageable, but it is essential to be aware of the extra attention your pup might need. You might find there are significant restrictions on the amount of exercise your dog can manage, or weather conditions your pet simply can’t handle.

  • Exercise intolerance

Many brachy dogs, especially if they have had no airway surgery, struggle to tolerate intense or prolonged exercise without having breathing difficulties. There is a huge range between individuals. Some dogs might be fine to run and play with other dogs as long as they take frequent breaks, whilst others might not tolerate running much at all and actually start to pant heavily after 10-15 minute walks. It is essential to get to know your individual dog and learn to read their signs of getting tired or out of breath. Once a brachy dog is panting heavily they can go from OK to collapsed in a matter of minutes, so it is essential that you take panting and shade-seeking very seriously in a brachy pet.

  • Weather

Some brachy dogs are exquisitely sensitive to warm weather and their exercise tolerance may decline dramatically on a hot day. Some of these dogs struggle to cool themselves down normally due to having a large tongue and not much sinus or nostril space in which to exchange air. If your dog is wanting to sit down or seeking shade a lot, let them do this. They may be telling you they are getting overheated and need a rest. Always carry water with you so you can offer your dog a drink on-the-go if they need it. Get to know your pet and avoid going out in any conditions that you know they are likely to struggle in. Caution is advised when exercising brachy dogs on any day over 25o. The use of fans and aircon at home is very important to help them cool down if they have become warm.

  • Car Journeys and Travel

All dogs can become easily overheated in the car, especially once the engine is off, so dogs should never be left in the car alone. This is particularly true for brachy dogs, because their self-cooling mechanisms are not as effective as other breeds. Your dog may need the aircon blasting higher than you do when driving home! Always check you brachy dog for panting and drooling on a long car trip.

Many pet transport companies won’t drive or fly brachy dogs at all due to their increased risk of heat stroke and collapse during stressful and hot travel events. You will need to bear this in mind when arranging how you will pick up your puppy from your breeder.

  • Vet Visits and Stressful Events

Vet visits can be tricky for many brachy dogs especially if they become nervous. Dogs naturally pant when stressed, which in a brachy dog, can lead to reduced oxygen intake. All brachy dogs are prone to difficulty breathing when stressed, especially when being restrained for a veterinary or grooming procedure. Many dogs feel nervous when held still, but for some brachys, the ensuing panting can cause a feeling of breathlessness, which can be very scary for them.

You can help your puppy avoid this common scenario by teaching them to be comfortable being held still, presenting their nails for nail clipping, and having their teeth and ears examined. Work with your vet to make vet visits as positive as possible and enquire about anxiety medications which could help your dog if they start to develop a vet or grooming phobia.

If your dog is panting after any stressful event, take them home, keep them cool, quiet and closely supervised until they have calmed down.

  • BOAS and Heat Stroke Episodes

All brachy owners need to be aware of the signs of Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome and Heat Stroke:

  • Excessive panting, snoring, snorting or gagging (excessive meaning anything that is more than average for your dog, or going on for longer than is usual for your dog after excitement or exercise)

  • Anything that looks like ‘difficulty breathing’

  • Drooling more than normal

  • Wobbliness or weakness

  • Anything that looks like collapse or fainting

  • Bright red, blue or purple tinged gums, tongue or lips (this one is an EMERGENCY – get straight to your closest vet!)

Nb. Pink or pale pink is the normal colour for the tongue and gums - see pictures below:

If your dog is showing any of the signs above, take them straight home, cool them down, keep them quiet, and if in any doubt, go straight to your nearest vet clinic for a check-up.

Realistically, part of brachy parenting is being prepared to abandon your plans and head home if needed to prioritise your dog’s health. You can help to minimise you pet’s risk by being an attentive pet parent who knows their pup inside and out and can make the right call to keep them safe at all times.

Brachycephalic Breeders on RightPaw

Why do we list them?

RightPaw understands that there will always be people who love these breeds and we can see why! We believe that we can all make the biggest difference to the health of these dogs by engaging directly with their breeders and puppy buyers, rather than pushing them into the periphery. Banning these breeds outright could run the risk of boosting a ‘black-market’ of sorts, with disreputable breeders in particular continuing to sell puppies, but not providing any educational support to new puppy parents and not engaging in any health testing.

At RightPaw, we only work with brachy breeders who are future-focused and passionate about optimising the health of their puppies. They are committed to producing healthy, happy dogs now and improving the long-term health of their breed. We believe that whilst there are significant concerns with these breeds, it is possible to reduce the prevalence of brachy health conditions by conducting health testing and being highly selective when choosing which dogs to breed from.

RightPaw breeders of French Bulldogs, British Bulldogs, Pugs and Boston Terriers are required to meet stringent health testing guidelines to prove they are committed to improving the health of these breeds long-term, and that they are passionate about the welfare of their breeding mums and puppies.

Click here for more details: RightPaw Brachycephalic Breeding Policy

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