To breathe or not to breathe?


Dr Louise Cox-O'Shea BVSc MRCVS Veterinary Surgeon, veterinary-nurses, practices...

To breathe or not to breathe? That is the question…..

  That is indeed the question of the day. It is difficult to open any veterinary publication right now without seeing an article or opinion on brachycephalic dogs. Brachycephalic dogs are those dogs with squashed noses, flat faces and protruding lower jaws eg pugs, bulldogs, French bulldogs etc. So what’s it all about? How concerned should prospective owners be about the medical challenges that may lie ahead?

My view:

  I am truly torn on the matter when it comes to the brachycephalic debate. As a clinician, working with small animals for the past 14 years, I have had many a pug come through the door. I find the majority of these breeds to be some of the sweetest natured animals I have had the pleasure to work with! However, I also have seen these breeds come through my door a disproportionately high number of times. I feel that the welfare implications of breeding animals to such extremes is one that cannot be overlooked.

The Current climate:

  • It is thought brachycephalic dogs have been popularised by celebrities owning such dogs and big brand advertising featuring these breeds.
  • The Kennel club reports a significant increase in the registration of brachycephalic dogs in the past few years.
  • A veterinary practice in Wales took a stand against the increasing trend towards brachycephalic dogs on welfare grounds. The practice, whilst still offering veterinary care to its brachycephalic patients, will no longer offer pre-mate testing or fertility investigation/ treatment for these breeds.
  • The BWG (Brachycephalic Working Group), in an open letter, urged businesses to stop using images of brachycephalic dogs in advertising.
  • The BVA (British Veterinary Association) has launched a campaign ‘Breed to breathe’ to highlight the problems encountered by such breeds and the worrying trends being seen.

The problems encountered by these breeds:

  • Breathing difficulties.

This is, for me, the main area of concern. Brachycephalic dogs often have an overlong soft palate, narrow airways and stenotic nares (narrowed nostrils). In clinical practice I have seen individuals so compromised that they have collapsed upon even the mildest of exercise. I believe this goes against at least one of the ‘five freedoms’ which make up the very cornerstone of animal welfare.

  • Anaesthetic risk.

In my clinical opinion, there is a significantly increased anaesthetic risk faced by these breeds. The challenges are seen right from induction; when it is imperative that the ET tube is placed ASAP, it is also often more difficult to intubate these breeds due to the altered anatomy. During anaesthesia, I have observed it to be more difficult to keep oxygen saturation at the optimum level and closer monitoring is required. Recovery is where I have seen the greatest problems; it is imperative to extubate (remove the ET/ breathing tube) such breeds at the last possible moment; as brachycephalic breeds are more likely to encounter breathing problems and arrest upon recovery. Also if respiratory difficulties occur it is much more challenging to intubate these animals, as previously mentioned.

  • Corrective surgery.

Some require corrective surgery early on in life eg soft palate resection. Nares (nose)surgery.

  • Ocular problems.

These breeds present much more commonly than any other group with conditions such as eye ulcers and cherry eye. These can be extremely painful and problematic to cure.

  • Skin problems

The folds of skin and often narrowed ear canals predispose to bacterial skin and ear infections often with further complications arising.

  • Heart problems.

The increased effort required to breathe and sufficiently oxygenate the body can predispose to secondary cardiac problems.

  • Dental problems.

The short upper jaw / protruding lower jaw leads to poor occlusion of the teeth. This can make eating more difficult and predispose to gingivitis, tooth decay etc.

  • Breeding problems.

Many of these breeds struggle to give birth naturally and often require caesarean sections.

Copyright image of Blue Cross

My advice for anyone considering buying a brachycephalic breed dog:

  • Not all dogs will be affected by the above problems but be aware that many will.
  • Consider if a similar temperament and sized dog, without the flat faced look, could be the new canine addition that you desire.
  • If you do desire a brachycephalic breed ensure the breeder is a reputable breeder with welfare at the forefront of their priorities. Request to see the bitch and dog. Request to see health certificates for the bitch and dog and any genetic health tests relevant to the breed.
  • Seek out individuals within the litter with a longer snout.
  • Consider a cross breed.
  • Be aware of future financial implications and consider insurance.
  • Be aware when selecting your puppy that snorting and wheezing sounds are NOT normal sounds.
  • Be aware of potential ongoing health care needs and be sure you have the time as well as the money for such commitments.
  • Be conscious that certain situations may be risky to brachycephalic breed; such as exercising in hot weather etc.

  It is true that many of these flat faced individuals go through life requiring no intervention at all and a recent research by the RVC (Royal Veterinary College) indicated that 90% of pug, French bulldog and English bulldog owners said they would own another such dog again. I can understand why; I think they can be truly delightful animals with very friendly temperaments.

I hope that this information may inform and guide people considering such breeds and I hope the current spotlight on the issue may lead to less extreme breeding and improved animal welfare.

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