- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Few things are more frightening than realising, “my dog can’t breathe!” My first dog was a pug named Mandy who had the cutest little smushy face, the sweetest little curly tail, and decidedly un-cute, not-at-all-sweet trouble breathing.
She snorted and snored throughout her life, sometimes doing what pug lovers call the “reverse sneeze.” Mandy lived a long, happy life, and I have to admit, her powerful snore was endearing! But I wish I had known more about the respiratory issues that plague pugs because there’s a chance she could have been more comfortable if I had known how to help during her episodes.
Short-snouted dogs are adorable, which accounts for their popularity. If you’re the proud pet parent to a short-nosed dog, you may have at some point wondered if your dog’s snorting was normal, or the sign of something worse.
Unfortunately, past breeding standards for short-snouted cuties lead to compromised respiratory systems, and while a dog making snorfling sounds can be cute, those sounds may indicate a more serious problem. It’s important to know the difference between normal snorting and a major respiratory issue.
The technical term for a short-snouted animal is brachycephalic, which comes from latin roots meaning “short-headed.”
Common brachycephalic breeds include pugs like Mandy, as well as bulldogs, Pekingese, boxers, and certain types of Chihuahuas (see a full list of brachycephalic dog breeds here). Other types of dogs can develop breathing problems, but in short-headed breeds, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll notice some trouble breathing.
The British Veterinary Association is concerned that the rapid rise in the number of brachycephalic dogs in the UK is leading to a population-based increase of ill health and compromised welfare in these breed types and is calling for collective action to drive healthier standards (source). The Kennel Club, has also introduced a BOAS assessment and grading system in partnership with the University of Cambridge, and advises would-be owners still intent on getting a brachycephalic dog to use registered breeders or rescue homes.
“These dogs have been bred to have relatively short muzzles and noses and, because of this, the throat and breathing passages in these dogs are frequently undersized or flattened.” (source)
Those compromised breathing passages are the cause of the snorting, gasping, and other funny sounds our short-snouted friends make. Almost all flat-faced dogs are prone to mild snoring and snorting, but sometimes, short snouts lead to more serious breathing problems.
Shaun Opperman, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home’s veteran head vet who regularly performs surgeries on brachycephalic dogs to lessen their struggle breathing, says: “We tend to normalise this condition. We tend to say: ‘Oh, it’s a French bulldog – it’s normal for them to breathe like that, but if your child sounded like that after a walk in the park, you’d have him straight down to A&E.” (source)
The general term for respiratory problems in short-snouted breeds is Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome, which covers a range of upper respiratory problems affecting the throat, nose, and mouth of our flat-faced friends. They have a small windpipe, smaller nostrils, or an elongated soft palate that obstructs breathing in the back of their throat.
Opperman explains, “The skeletal features have changed, but the soft tissues haven’t adapted with them.”
Of course, this is just the technical explanation for why some short-muzzled dogs have trouble breathing. The next step is to know how to identify breathing problems in your own dog.
It’s common for a French bulldog or pug to snort from time to time, so if your dog seems happy and healthy and hasn’t keeled over from breathlessness, you’re probably in the clear. But if your flat-faced pup is breathing rapidly, gagging, or coughing constantly, she may have a more serious respiratory issue going on.
In more severe cases, animals may make pronounced noises when they breathe, seem to tire out more quickly when they exercise and may faint or collapse after exertion (source). By observing your dog’s daily behaviour and noticing changes in their breathing or exercise recovery, you can identify these more serious problems.
If your dog has a serious breathing episode, or if her noises seem to have gotten markedly worse, don’t delay in getting her to the vet. Oxygen therapy and anti-inflammatories can help in the short-term, and your vet can help you work on a plan to help your best friend breathe easier going forward.
For dogs with serious respiratory problems, surgery can become necessary to widen nostrils and/or shorten elongated patellas.
While respiratory issues are most common in short-snouted dogs, breeds with more elongated head shapes can develop breathing problems as a result of obesity, infection, and more. For all dogs, maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise will help to maintain healthy breathing.
Of course, where your short-snouted dog is concerned, over-exertion can lead to a scary respiratory episode, which makes exercise difficult.
If your brachycephalic buddy is out of shape, it’s time to start a slow and steady weight-loss plan under the guidance of your vet. A moderate diet and limited activity in cooler weather will help keep her healthy. You can help your dog breathe easy by controlling her exercise level, keeping her out of heat and humidity, and reducing stress in her life.
Remember, you know your dog best, and if her breathing is becoming a problem, you’ll notice. For the vast majority of brachycephalic dogs, mild respiratory issues are a part of life. If more serious problems develop, there are treatment options to help your dog live a long, oxygenated life. And as long as your pet is healthy and happy, you can enjoy a few cute snorts here and there.
Top image via Flickr/oezz