Brachycephalic Syndrome: A Look Inside a Pug Skull!

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Brachycephalic dogs, close up of covered pug skull copyDo you have a flat-faced or snub-nosed dog or cat, or thinking about getting one? Get to know a little about Brachycephalic Syndrome. In short, for dog and cat breeds with these features, it can affect their ability to breathe.

If symptoms are not picked up and managed, the outcome can be fatal. To learn more about what this syndrome is, what to look for, and what you can do to help keep your pet healthy, read on!

The Brachycephaly Definition

Understanding this syndrome begins with knowing what the word means, and how it affects dog and cat breeds. In the original Greek language, “brachy” means short, and “cephaly” or “cephalic” means head.

Put them both together and brachycephalic breeds are those with short heads or skulls. There are both brachycephalic dogs and cats with these compact, flatter looking faces and shorter muzzles.

What is Brachycephalic Syndrome?

It’s the size and brachycephalic head shape that puts these breeds at risk of developing Brachycephalic Syndrome. Brachycephalic breeds have shorter and smaller skull structures, especially around their nasal passages.

Everything to do with their airway is condensed and compacted. This means they can have a hard time getting enough oxygen into their system.

What happens then is they can develop difficulties with breathing and have respiratory problems in general. In the worst case scenario, animals can develop severe respiratory distress, aspiration pneumonia, and laryngeal collapse. Long-term lack of oxygen can also contribute to heart problems for brachycephalic dogs and brachycephalic cats.

Brachycephalic Syndrome does also get referred to by other names. These include:

  • Brachycephalic Respiratory Syndrome
  • Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome
  • Congenital Obstructive Airway Disease
  • Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome
  • Brachycephalic Airway Obstructive Syndrome.

The Anatomy of a Pug Skull/Pug Skeleton Head!

Brachycephalic syndrome, outside of pug skeleton

There are five main anatomical features of a brachycephalic pet that can show abnormalities. Having one or more of the following physical defects can contribute to breathing problems:

Stenotic Nares

In plain language, nares are nostrils and stenotic means narrowed. A brachycephalic cat or a brachycephalic dog may have long and narrow nostrils. Their nostrils may look more like slits, rather than being round as in other breeds. For a pet with very narrow nostrils, it is like trying to breathe with a blocked or stuffy nose all the time.

Elongated Soft Palate

The soft palate is an area on the roof of the mouth at the back, where the nasal cavity begins. If the soft palate is too long, it can block air from getting into the trachea (windpipe).

Narrow Trachea

The trachea is the “windpipe” that air travels through, and down into the lungs. If a brachycephalic animal has tracheal hypoplasia, this means the width or diameter of a trachea is too narrow. For these pets, it would be like trying to draw air through a straw to breathe.

Everted Laryngeal Saccules

These are small sacs or pockets in front of the larynx (voice box). Everted laryngeal saccules are drawn into your pet’s airway or trachea when they breathe and can block it. They are further affected if the animal also has an elongated soft palate and/or stenotic nares. If arytenoid cartilages are displaced, laryngeal collapse can occur.

Nasopharyngeal Turbinates

Turbinates are small curved bones around the nasal area. These help with controlling and filtering air as it’s inhaled. The nasopharyngeal region is the area at the very back of the throat. If the bones in this area are too short or irregular in shape, this can then affect the quantity and quality of air breathed in.

Signs and Symptoms to Look Out For!

If you are looking for a puppy or kitten, first of all, check the breeder’s health and breeding policies. Reputable breeders will not breed cats or dogs with a genetic history of Brachycephalic Syndrome.

If you already have a brachycephalic dog or cat in your life keep an eye out for the following symptoms and breathing difficulties. These can all indicate they are experiencing some level of respiratory distress:

  • Open-mouthed breathing: Animals, and humans, normally breathe through their nostrils. If your dog or cat is breathing more easily and more often through their mouth, this can be a warning bell that something is not right.
  • Labored or noisy breathing: Very noisy or labored breathing during exercise or when sleeping can signal breathing problems. Snoring may be cute and funny, but it’s not a good sign for these pets.
  • Physical ailments: Fainting or collapsing after exercise can occur due to a lack of oxygen. Dogs with this syndrome may also vomit, cough, retch or gag if they develop Hiatal hernias from the extra effort of their organs needed to breathe.
  • The weather makes matters worse: All or any symptoms may be more severe in very humid or very hot weather.
  • Extreme flatulence and gas: The struggle for the intake of intake can result in swallowing gulping of air, which results in increased gas and flatulence.

Brachycephaly bulldog skull

Can This Condition Be Treated?

There are treatment options to make life easier for brachycephalic dogs and cats with physical abnormalities affecting their breathing.

A veterinarian may recommend a range of diagnostic tests to establish and confirm the best treatment method. Some of the abnormalities, such as a hypoplastic trachea, elongated palate, or problems with the larynx may require for your pet to be sedated for a full examination.

Depending on clinical signs and severity, treatments for brachycephalic dogs and brachycephalic cats may include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • Medication such as steroids to reduce inflammation
  • Surgery to alleviate upper airway obstruction. This could include widening of stenotic nares (narrow nostrils), the removal of soft tissue around the soft palate and laryngeal saccules, or the insertion of an endotracheal tube to widen the airway.

5 Ways to Help Your Doggo Keep Those Oxygen Levels Up!

  1. Take them to the Vet! If you have a short-nosed brachycephalic dog or cat, get them assessed by a veterinarian. Do this while they are young and at regular intervals as adults. Early detection of any potential risks around their airway makes it easier to manage down the line if they do develop the syndrome.
  2. Keep them cool! Dogs pant when they are hot to keep themselves cool. In a Brachy dog, this puts even more stress on their respiratory system. If you’re out on a walk with your brachycephalic dog on a hot day, don’t overdo it! Avoid heat stroke by making sure they have plenty of shade, rest and water. A leash attached to a harness rather than a collar that constricts their larynx can also be more comfortable.
  3. Let the air flow! In your house make sure they always have adequate ventilation. Hot, stuffy, and humid environments can be fatal. Never leave a pet alone in a hot car, even with a window slightly open! The temperature in a car rises to dangerous levels within minutes.
  4. Watch their weight! Keep your Brachy pet within their healthy weight range for their size and breed. Carrying extra pounds puts an additional burden on their respiratory system, and heart.
  5. Keep them calm and carry on! Stress, anxiety, fear – these all contribute to breathing airway problems. If you are traveling with your pet, or in unfamiliar situations or surroundings, do everything you can to reassure them and make it as stress-free as possible.

Brachycephalic Dog Breeds

Flat faced or brachycephalic dogs such as Bulldogs and Pugs are often in the Top 10 of the American Kennel Club’s most popular dog breeds. Many people find their character filled look, those wrinkly crinkly faces and skin folds are hard to resist!

Some of the brachycephalic dogs at risk of developing this syndrome include:

Flat Faced Cats: Brachycephalic Cat Breeds

There is a shorter list of brachycephalic cat breeds. However, as with dogs, the risks of cats or crossbreeds with flat faces developing this syndrome are the same. Brachycephalic cat breeds include:

Most Brachycephalic Dogs and Cats are on the “No Fly” List

Many airlines exclude all or some specific brachycephalic breeds from flying on both domestic and international flights. Even when a carrier or airline’s animal policy is generally pet-friendly they may not let brachycephalic animals on board. There is a good reason for this.

Brachycephalic cat aka a flat faced cat or smushed face cat in a bowl

The Potential Dangers of Air Travel for Short Nosed Animals/Smushed Face Cats and Dogs

  • Brachycephalic cats and dogs do not handle breathing in the pressurized environment of airline cabins well.
  • They may become even more unwell if they are placed in the cargo hold, as these areas may be very hot, and not air-conditioned.
  • Short and snub-nosed cat and dog breeds need more ventilation and air circulation than some pet crates/carriers allow for.
  • If traveling in the cargo hold, short-nosed brachycephalic breeds may not be monitored to check how they are handling the environmental conditions.
  • Note: some people recommend sedatives to reduce stress when traveling, however, these can also affect the breathing of brachycephalic breeds.

Airlines update their pet and animal policies regularly, so if you are intending or needing to fly with your pet, always check before you get to the airport or check out our Airlines Policy Page and learn if you can bring them or not!

Common Questions 

Is a collar or a harness better for brachycephalic animals?

Are there other names for brachycephalic syndrome?

Is fainting a symptom of brachycephalic syndrome?

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