What Is Brachycephalic Syndrome? A Guide to Understanding Flat-Faced Dog Breeds

French bulldog puppy with paw up

Capuski / Getty

Flat-faced dogs, formerly known as brachycephalic dogs, have been purposely bred over the years for a shortened skull and small snout that make up the distinctive baby face we know and love in many popular dog breeds today. These include the French bulldog and English bulldog, both of which are second and fifth on America’s most popular dog breeds list.

“Scientific studies have documented that people are emotionally attracted to this type of face because it reminds us of babies,” said Barry Kipperman, DVM, DACVIM, MS, DACAW, veterinary animal welfare specialist and chairman of the board of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. “Studies have documented that these types of facial expressions induce grooming properties in humans and therefore make up a large part of their appeal in lies.”

However, as Kipperman puts it, there is a “cost of cuteness” associated with brachycephalic dog breeds because their flattened noses leave little room for air.

What is Brachycephalic Syndrome?

Many brachycephalic dogs are at risk for brachycephalic airway syndrome, a result of their nubby noses.

“What happens to these dogs is that if you squeeze them in the face, they still have all that tissue, and the bottom line is that you’ve now squeezed all of that tissue into that tiny space and there’s no room for air. “Kipperman says.

Large brachycephalic dog breeds like the Mastiff and Newfoundland have larger noses than smaller breeds, so they may not have any problems despite their wrinkled expressions. The shorter the nose, the more likely the breed is showing symptoms of brachycephalic syndrome, says Kipperman. Pugs, English bulldogs, and French bulldogs have the shortest noses, so it is very likely that they are affected by brachycephalic airway syndrome, which can appear as a variety of symptoms including:

Common brachycephalic health problems in dog breeds

The story goes on

With airway restriction, it’s no surprise that these puppies are more easily swaddled when exercising, and a big cause for concern is exposure to hot temperatures. Dogs can thermoregulate themselves through the nose, but have essentially no nose to speak of, which affects this ability. Brachycephalic dogs are prone to overheating and heat stroke in hot weather.

Brachycephalic syndrome in dogs is also often associated with obesity. Limited training capacity means these pups can put on the pounds and often get overweight. Kipperman says that obese dogs are twice as likely to have symptoms of brachycephalic syndrome, which in turn affects their ability to exercise. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle, and once those already compromised canines get into it, it can be difficult to escape.

After all, it may come as a shock to the owners of these breeds, but the silly snorts and snores that you expect from your flat-faced puppy – although they are certainly adorable – are not normal.

“Snoring and snorting are not normal sounds for a dog,” says Kipperman. “What they represent is impaired breathing. Unfortunately, academic studies have documented that owners of these dogs normalize and get used to them so they don’t notice that their individual dog has a problem.”

Brachycephalic dog breeds often have a shorter lifespan than other dogs and are more likely to die from shortness of breath than other dog breeds.

Fortunately, identifying a problem with your pup, even if it starts with a snort or an established snoring pattern, can help improve their quality of life and educate the way you care for them.

How to groom a brachycephalic dog

Making sure your puppy has a healthy life starts with the breeder. Because brachycephalic dog breeds are so popular, untrustworthy breeders have emerged. While all brachycephalic dog breeds can be prone to brachycephalic respiratory syndrome, those born to breeders who are misinformed or have an intention to give birth to as many puppies as possible – regardless of their health or conditions – can have a number of additional malformations. Kipperman recommends doing your research before buying and looking for dogs from certified breeders only through the AKC.

CONNECTED: 9 tips to avoid fake breeders, faux rescues, and internet-based puppy mills

Although the health risks associated with brachycephalic dogs may seem daunting, lifestyle changes can often prevent more serious symptoms from occurring. Since so many of these dogs’ problems stem from continued training or exposure to the elements, a modified training routine goes a long way. Save long walks for temperatures in the 50s or 60s and avoid prolonged outdoor activities when temperatures are above 80 degrees.

Otherwise, many brachycephalic breeds have a penchant for play and enjoy the same activities as other dogs, in cooler weather of course. Following a consistent routine that works for and protects your pet will prevent obesity, and therefore the risk of serious health complications.

If your dog has symptoms of brachycephalic respiratory syndrome, your veterinarian can make a definitive diagnosis and help you determine the best way to care for your dog. According to Kipperman, the information an owner can provide about their dog’s symptoms will help with a diagnosis. So don’t hesitate to share any of your concerns. After all, you know your pup best.

“The final way this condition is diagnosed is for the dog to be anesthetized and the vet to open their mouth and pull the tongue forward and shine a bright light down the throat,” says Kipperman. “This way the vet can determine that there is not enough room for air.”

If that is determined and lifestyle changes are not enough to treat their condition, your veterinarian may recommend surgery. One such surgery aims to increase airflow by widening the nostrils, while the other removes the tissue from the throat to make room for air. Surgery is not the solution for every brachycephalic dog, but the younger a symptomatic dog is by the time it finishes surgery, the better it will do.

In short, informed owners can find worthwhile company in a brachycephalic dog breed as long as you take your care to ensure that any special needs are met. Here are the brachycephalic breeds in question:

List of brachycephalic dog breeds

5 most popular dog breeds with flat faces

1. French bulldog

Black and white French bulldog sitting in a garden of purple flowers

Black and white French bulldog sitting in a garden of purple flowers

Purple Collar Pet Photography / Getty

The friendly French Bulldog, who nearly took first place on the AKC 2020’s Most Popular Dog Breed List, settled for second place, and it’s easy to see why. The pointy ears of these pint-sized pups are as good as their laid back personalities, which are suitable for any family.

2. Bulldog

English bulldog stands in the grass with tongue out

English bulldog stands in the grass with tongue out

liliya kulianionak / Adobe Stock

The fifth-placed English Bulldog is perhaps best recognized by its frowning facade, but don’t let him fool you – grumpy as they may seem, these big-boned boys and girls are morons at heart.

3. Boxer

Boxer looks at the camera

Boxer looks at the camera

Ryan Murphy / Getty

In 14th place is the female boxer, who may be a little more active than her other brachycephalic brothers. Boxers were bred to be working dogs and like to use their natural energy to entertain family members and to be active together in the great outdoors (in these cooler temperatures!).

4. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

Red and white spaniel is standing in the grass

Red and white spaniel is standing in the grass

Bigandt.com / Shutterstock

The 17th rank Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is suitable and adaptable for large and small families, young and old. He’s happy in homes of all shapes and sizes, keeps pace with disastrous children, and just as easily sits back with calm seniors. They also make a good addition to dogs and cats in multi-pet households.

CONNECTED: How to introduce a dog to a cat

5. Shih Tzu

Two brown and white Shih Tzus with front ponytails lay in a yard

Two brown and white Shih Tzus with front ponytails lay in a yard

Alex / Adobe Stock Shih tzus love companionship, be it with their humans or other animals. They coexist well with cats and other dogs and make ideal furry siblings.

The Shih Tzu, which hits the top 20, will almost certainly claim your lap – in fact, this centuries-old Chinese breed once graced the rounds of ancient Chinese kings. They may have started hundreds of years ago, but have been close companions to their owners ever since.

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