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The Perils of Pugs and Persians: Flat-Faced Breathing


Pet Column for the week of November 8, 2011

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Related site - Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Andrea Lin
Information Specialist

After centuries of selective breeding, dogs and cats now come in an amazing range of sizes and shapes. Unfortunately, sometimes there are negative consequences to these extremes in size.

Such is the case for our pets with flat faces. The fancy term to describe pets with squashed-in noses is "brachycephalic" — literally meaning "short-headed." Common brachycephalic dog breeds include the pug, Shih Tzu, bulldog, boxer, Pekingese, and many more, whereas there are fewer brachycephalic cat breeds, among them the Persian and Himalayan.

Dr. Brendan McKiernan is a professor of small animal medicine and director of the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. He is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and has had a special interest in respiratory diseases of companion animals for over 35 years. He says that the ancestors of today's breeds had longer muzzles and more space for the complex scrolls of bone structures inside.

These structures, called "conchae" or "turbinates," have very important jobs to do in dogs, cats, people, and other mammals: they protect our airways and our lungs by trapping and filtering particles; warm and humidify the air we breathe; provide a first line of defense for the immune system; and play a role in the sense of smell.

In the flat-faced breeds, these structures are constrained into a much shorter area, which can lead to problems. As a result, these breeds have "a marked potential for breathing issues," says Dr. McKiernan.

"These turbinates are crowded inside the nasal cavity, which commonly leads to obstructive breathing in brachycephalic breeds," says Dr. McKiernan. "The effect is similar to how our noses are when stuffy from colds or allergies, making it difficult to breathe nasally."

Dr. McKiernan says flat-faced dogs and cats may have up to nine different anatomic features related to their breathing troubles, such as pinched nostrils, elongated soft palates, and narrow tracheas. These pets have to work harder to breathe, which can cause stress and swelling of the tissues lining their respiratory tract, further exacerbating the respiratory problem. Typically these problems progress and worsen with age.

The most important thing owners can do for their flat-faced pets is to keep them at a healthy weight. Obesity exacerbates their breathing troubles. Dr. McKiernan especially warns against feeding these pets human food. He says to monitor how much food they eat, and if you give treats, make sure to reduce the amount of food given at mealtimes.

Unfortunately, these pets may have a harder time than other pets losing extra pounds. Dr. McKiernan calls it a "catch 22" when it comes to exercise: flat-faced pets have a harder time exercising because of their breathing difficulties, but because they exercise less, they are more prone to gain weight, which in turn makes it even harder to breathe. That's why it is so important to keep them at a healthy weight to begin with.

There are surgical procedures that can help these pets as well. Veterinarians trained in this area can examine your pet's airways while your pet is under anesthesia. Dr. McKiernan advises having this examination (and any necessary corrective surgery) done at the same time as a spay or neuter so that your pet does not have to undergo an additional course of anesthesia, which always carries some risks.

"Procedures that could help improve your pet's breathing include fixing their pinched nostrils, making sure their soft palate does not block their airway, and one or two other procedures based on the examination findings," says Dr. McKiernan. These are not cosmetic alterations, but owners should be aware that any surgery used to improve their breathing may technically make these dogs and cats unqualified for the show ring.

You want the best health for your adorable flat-faced dog or cat, so remember that the most important thing you can do is to keep them at a healthy weight. For further information, contact your local veterinarian or seek the services of a veterinarian with special interest and expertise in respiratory issues.