Brachycephalic (short-skulled / flat-faced) dog breeds are very popular in Singapore. Examples of these breeds include the English Bulldog, French Bulldog, Shih Tzu, Pug, Chihuahua and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. The shortened skulls of these breeds, together with many other physical characteristics they possess, have resulted from selective breeding over a period of time. The physical form of these animals is now so different from the ancestors of the ‘dog’ that brachycephalic animals can face a number of health problems which can impact their quality of life.
The SVA is concerned about the welfare of brachycephalic animals and it is clear that a concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed to improve the welfare of these animals.
The most prominent issue for flat-faced animals is their inability to breathe normally. Selection for an extremely shortened face has resulted in multiple physical changes that contribute to Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS).
BOAS is a set of upper airway abnormalities that include narrower nostrils, an elongated and thickened soft palate, a thickened tongue base, and a narrow trachea (windpipe). These abnormalities decrease upper airway pressure gradients due to relatively narrow airways which can result in health conditions. These conditions include laryngeal (area of throat involved in breathing) collapse and pharyngeal (area of throat serving as a pathway for air and food) collapse which can further deteriorate respiratory function to life-threatening levels.
Some of the signs of BOAS include dyspnoea (difficulty breathing), stertor (noisy breathing), exercise intolerance, regurgitation and/or vomiting and overheating. Signs of breathing difficulties in these animals are also often misunderstood as being normal for such breeds.
Many brachycephalic animals have eyes that protrude out from their heads and this leads to a higher risk of eye-related issues such as injury and corneal ulcers.
Their shortened head means that there is less space for their teeth to develop properly, increasing the risk of dental issues as well.
The shortened nature of these breeds predisposes to vertebral body malformation (abnormal shape of the bones in the spine). Vertebral malformation can result in compression of the spinal cord and associated diseases of the spinal cord.
The SVA supports the stance of the UK Brachycephalic Working Group that anyone considering buying a brachycephalic breed should “stop and think before buying a flat-faced dog”. Demand, after all, fuels supply. To further reduce demand, we also recommend that brachycephalic breeds are not used in public marketing material.
Before purchasing a brachycephalic breed, potential owners should be fully aware of the health and welfare implications. They should also be counselled on the potential costs associated with managing disorders with these breeds.
We recommend that respiratory function is assessed in brachycephalic dogs to test how well their breathing system is working and whether surgery is required. This should be achieved through a combination of exercise tolerance testing and documentation of medical history.
Medical history taking needs to include probing questions pertaining to sleep patterns, capacity to eat and gastrointestinal symptoms, preferably utilising video footage of specific behaviours (such as regurgitation, difficulty swallowing and sleep apnoea) to help facilitate the recording of behaviours that owners might perceive as normal.
The Cambridge respiratory functional grading scheme is an ideal exercise tolerance test as it is validated against objective measures and provides consistent assessments between veterinarians.
Surgery to correct the physical abnormalities is recommended for dogs suffering clinically significant BOAS (moderate or severe disease). Annual monitoring is advised for dogs who do not have clinically significant BOAS.
It should be acknowledged that oropharyngeal (structures in the mouth and throat) examination is a tool to facilitate surgical planning and does not predict the severity of BOAS. Also, BOAS surgery may help to improve an animal’s respiratory function, and hence quality of life, but it does not resolve the upper airway issues completely. Pet owners should discuss options with their veterinarian.
As brachycephalic breeds are more susceptible to heat intolerance, pet owners should avoid exercising dogs for prolonged periods, especially in hot weather. Maintaining lean body weight is advised as this has been shown to reduce the severity of breathing difficulties and reduces the risk of heat intolerance.
Animal breeders have a responsibility to breed companion animals who are healthy, and breeding should always be done in a way that leads to better health and welfare standards. Breeders should follow health testing guidelines including respiratory functional grading and vertebral body scoring, and never select for physical characteristics (such as an extremely short skull) that would cause harm to the animal.
Brachycephalic breeds are well loved because of their wonderful personalities and we know that pet owners care for them very dearly. It is thus most unfortunate that part of what draws people to these animals, their physical appearance, is the very cause of their health and welfare issues.
The SVA believes that more needs to be done to protect these animals and that all of us have a part to play.
This statement received expert input from Dr. Arthur House, BSc BVMS PhD Cert SAS DECVS (Small Animal Surgery)
- With over 20 years of experience in small animal surgery, he is a recognized board-certified specialist in small animal surgery in both Australia and Europe.
- Dr. Arthur was a lecturer in Small Animal Surgery at the Royal Veterinary College, London prior to his return home to Australia.
- He is an established expert in the Cambridge Respiratory Function Grading (RFG) system used to assess how well brachycephalic breeds breathe.
- He is currently Australia’s Chief Assessor for the RFG Scheme.