The problem with squishy-faced dogs

Charter vet Alison Hume BVSc MRCVS takes a look at the popularity of flat-faced dogs at the moment – and the common health problems that many of them sadly face.

I’m sure everyone has noticed that squishy faced dogs are very popular at the moment, specifically French Bulldogs, Pugs and their various crosses. These little dogs have huge characters, and are very cute.  I confess, I have a Frenchie myself , and I’m a vet. But having a flat face  (being brachycephalic) can cause many health problems.

Long term breathing difficulties and an inability to cool down normally are commonly seen in these breeds. This breathing disorder is called ‘Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome’, or BOAS, and is a progressive, lifelong disorder that can affect a dog’s ability to exercise, play, eat and sleep. Brachycephalic dogs usually have narrowed nostrils and an overlong soft palate, which blocks the passage of air through the nose and throat. Some breeds also have a narrowed wind pipe. This makes it difficult for affected dogs to breathe freely and get enough air into their lungs.

Over time, the additional breathing effort that affected dogs take can lead to collapse of the larynx (‘voice box’). As well as difficulty breathing, restrictions to the flow of air through the nostrils and internal nose structures can make it a real problem for brachycephalic dogs to cool down, as the nose is the main area in a dog’s body where heat exchange occurs.

What are the signs my dog may have BOAS?

  • Dogs with BOAS show an increase in the amount of noise they make when breathing, even at rest, which may sound like snoring, snorting or wheezing. They show additional effort when breathing, which includes excessive panting, and laboured and heavy breathing with heaving of the chest and stomach with each breath.

  • Dogs with BOAS are often unable to exercise normally and may have to rest frequently on walks. In severe cases, dogs may show a blue or grey tinge to their gums and tongue which are signs of low blood oxygen, and may  even collapse.

  • In warm weather BOAS signs can worsen and other signs of overheating  can occur including heavy panting, a high temperature, glazed eyes, fast pulse, vomiting/diarrhoea, excessive thirst, dark red tongue, drooling and staggering. Overheating can be life threatening, and dogs may seizure, collapse, become unconscious, and in some cases even die!

  • Dogs with BOAS find it difficult to sleep normally, often snoring while sleeping and they may try to prop their head up while they are asleep to keep their airway open.

  • Some dogs with BOAS may also show problems with their gastrointestinal system, such as regurgitation, vomiting and coughing up foamy saliva.

  • The signs of BOAS usually get worse over time and can be a severe problem by the time the dog is one year old.

Surgery helps many dogs with brachycephaly enjoy a better quality of life, but these dogs will not be ‘normal’ even after surgery, and owners will  still have to take certain precautions with them. This includes keeping  them slim, avoiding taking them out in hot weather, taking them on regular short walks to avoid putting stress on their airways while maintaining fitness, and using a harness instead of a collar to avoid putting pressure on their airway.

Alison says:

My little Frenchie had BOAS which became a problem when she turned three. She had surgery last August at Charter Vets and has had a new lease of life. She can play without getting overheated and is loving her walks in this early spring weather, which she couldn’t have managed before.

So remember, if your Pug, Frenchie or Bulldog is making any unusual noises at exercise, and easily getting hot and bothered, that is not normal and you should seek some veterinary advice.