Brachycephalic Syndrome: Dogs with short faces

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The term “brachycephalic” translates to “short head.” It describes dogs such as Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Pugs, Boxers, and other breeds with “pushed-in” faces. The conformation of these dogs predisposes them to unique medical conditions.

Brachycephalic breeds make a characteristic “snorting” sound when they breathe. A combination of physical factors contributes to this noise, and in severe cases or in instances of over-exertion, may contribute to difficulty breathing and poor oxygenation.

Small nostrils, or stenotic nares, are one of the anatomical features that leads to breathing difficulty in brachycephalic breeds. The narrow opening of the respiratory tract makes it difficult for these dogs to take in enough air, leading to increased open-mouth breathing and panting.

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Brachycephalic dogs often have an enlarged tongue relative to the size of their mouth. They also typically have an elongated soft palate, which is the tissue that separates the mouth from the nasal cavity. The tissue in front of the vocal cords is often excessive, and gets pulled into the trachea during breathing, causing a condition known as “everted laryngeal saccules.” This excess of soft tissue relative to the space of the airway impedes airflow during breathing.

The trachea, or windpipe, of brachycephalic dogs is often dangerously narrow. This trait is especially prominent in English Bulldogs.

These obstructions to proper airflow not only make breathing difficult; they also inhibit the effectiveness of panting, which is the dog’s primary cooling mechanism. In most dogs, panting is effective because air evaporates off of the surface of the tongue, drawing heat away from the body.  Brachycephalic dogs require so much more effort to move air through their airways that the cooling mechanism is inefficient. When these dogs become too hot or stressed and begin to pant, the airways become inflamed and swollen. This inflammation causes further airway resistance, contributing to a vicious cycle that leads to even more difficulty breathing, and often, to rapid and severe over-heating and inability to breathe.

Because brachycephalic dogs are predisposed to overheating, it is important to take certain precautions when caring for them.  It is critical to keep them from getting too hot during the summer. It is also important to keep them at a healthy weight. If you own a brachycephalic dog, you should be well aware of your dog’s exercise limitations.

Some, but not all, of the traits of brachycephalic dogs can be surgically corrected. Stenotic nares can be widened. Elongated soft palates can be trimmed. Everted laryngeal saccules can be removed.  Severely affected dogs who suffer from laryngeal collapse may require a permanent tracheostomy (hole in the throat) in order to breathe.

Brachycephalic syndrome is usually progressive, causing affected dogs more and more problems as they age.

Although each breed or type of dog presents its own set of health problems, brachycephalic breeds present a significant set of challenges.  Owners of brachycephalic dogs therefore need to be particularly educated on their breed, and to take specific precautions to ensure their pets’ health and safety.

Dr. Kelly Sulik owns and operates Animobile Mobile Veterinary Services in Tryon, N.C. She can be reached at