Brachycephalic Dogs: What We Know About Frenchies, Pugs and Bulldogs

It is no secret that the UK is mad for short-faced dogs such as Pugs and French Bulldogs. However, this signature aesthetic comes at a price. Find out what our vets have to say on the subject.

It’s no secret that the UK is mad for short-faced dogs such as Pugs and Frenchies. Many people are attracted to them for their cute smooshy faces. Coupled with their good-natured personalities, what’s not to love?

The Kennel Club has seen French Bulldog registrations increase from 6,990 to 33,661 (a 482% increase!) between 2014 and 2019. With their popularity rising at a rapid rate, it is important to talk about how this cuteness does come at a price…

You might have heard the term ‘brachycephalic’ floating around used to describe these breeds, but what does it actually mean and how does it affect them?

In this article, we cover:

  • What is brachycephaly?
  • Which breeds are brachycephalic dogs?
  • Why do pugs have short noses?
  • What is BOAS, and does my dog have it?
  • What is BOAS surgery?
  • Why are brachycephalic breeds so popular? 
  • Brachycephalic breed registration statistics
  • What can be done?

 

What is brachycephaly?

Brachycephalic’ means ‘shortened head’ and is the veterinary term for these flat-faced dog breeds. Their skulls are shorter and wider, leading to the well-known appearance of a flattened snout.

This conformation most commonly leads to the classic snoring and snorting breathing sounds that we often hear. This is an indicator of an obstructed airway, making them prone to respiratory distress. It also lends these breeds host to many other health conditions.

Related problems include eye diseases (as the skull is shortened the eyes become abnormally exposed and ‘bulging’), an inability to mate or give birth naturally (nearly 100% of Bulldogs are born by Caesarean section!), skin infections, spine issues and dental problems.

This video below by Crufts explains brachycephaly in more detail:

 

 

Which breeds are brachycephalic dogs?

List of brachycephalic dog breeds:

  • French Bulldog
  • Pug
  • Boxer
  • Shih Tzu
  • Boston Terrier
  • Chow Chows
  • Lhasa Apso
  • Pekingese
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Bull Mastiff
  • Dogue de Bordeaux
  • English Bulldog
  • Shar Pei

However, did you know that brachycephaly doesn’t only affect dogs? Cats such as Persians, and rabbits such as Netherland Dwarfs show the same attributes.

 

But why do pugs have short noses?

This is a result of selective breeding by us humans. As we have come to find these short faces appealing and cute, more dogs have been bred for shorter and shorter snouts to keep up with demand.

The British Veterinary Association is concerned that the rapid rise in popularity of these breeds has led to “a population-based increase of ill health and compromised welfare in these breed types”.

Problems arise because when dogs are bred for snubber faces, this creates anatomical defects of the head, in particular the upper airway. The skull is selectively bred to become shorter therefore the skeletal muscles also shorten. Yet, the soft tissues contained within the skull show no corresponding decrease in size.

This leads to many of these dogs developing brachycephalic airway obstructive syndrome (BOAS).

 

What is BOAS?

BOAS refers to a set of conditions that some of these brachycephalic dogs may suffer from as a result of their anatomical conformation.

Diagram showing 4 main features of brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) - Stenotic airways, elongated soft palate, everted laryngeal saccules, narrowed trachea

These anatomical abnormalities that have been identified are:

  • Narrow nostrils – Known as ‘stenotic nares’, this is the easiest clinical sign to detect. They cause a reduction in airflow as the animal attempts to breathe. This means that brachycephalic dogs often have to rely more on breathing through their mouths. This is why you might observe your Frenchie panting a lot after a short walk, in an attempt to take in air and regulate their body temperature!
  • Elongated soft palate – The soft palate is a flap of tissue between the mouth and nasal cavities. If overly long, it obstructs the entrance to the windpipe (trachea) and forms a ‘seal’ at the back of the throat.
  • Hypoplastic trachea – The windpipe is narrower, again restricting airflow.
  • Everted laryngeal saccules – All the resistance to airflow further up causes the sacs of the larynx (voice box) to be sucked into the airway and cause further obstruction, this becomes a vicious cycle!

 

How can I tell if my dog has BOAS?

The problems outlined above lead to a severe difficulty in breathing. This is why Frenchies and similar breeds make very loud breathing noises (including snoring) and are often compared to trains or pigs! While this may be endearing or considered ‘normal for the breed’, it isn’t normal for dogs and it compromises their welfare, as well as decreasing its ability to exercise. It also makes them prone to overheating quickly.

These are some common signs of BOAS, although they may vary:

  • Noisy breathing in dogs (snoring/snorting when resting)
  • Reduced ability to tolerate exercise
  • Wheezing (stridor)
  • Prone to overheating
  • Excessive panting at rest or during exercise
  • Extending head and neck to breathe
  • Episodes of collapse (syncope)
  • Regurgitation
  • Gums turning pale blue/purple after exercise (cyanosis)
  • Sleep-disordered breathing (sleep apnoea)

Not all individuals of these ‘at risk’ brachycephalic dog breeds will develop severely debilitating BOAS, but incidence and severity of the disease are increasing at an alarming rate.

 

What is BOAS surgery?

Dogs that are greatly affected by BOAS can benefit from surgery. The goal of BOAS surgery is to improve airflow within the dog’s airways.

BOAS surgery usually involves:

  • Widening nostrils (alarplasty)
  • Shortening the soft palate (soft palate resection)
  • Removing laryngeal saccules (laryngeal sacculectomy)

Before and after BOAS surgery to correct stenotic nares, by enlarging nostrils

Although this surgery is likely to benefit most, if not all brachycephalic dogs, those that are not severely affected may still be able to cope well without undergoing surgery.

 

Why are brachycephalic breeds so popular?

Despite having such a large number of health issues, why do flat-faced dogs remain so popular? A large part of the reason is because of the breeds’ affectionate and playful temperaments. A 2020 study by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) found that owners perceived brachycephalic breeds to be low maintenance as they require less exercise, so are perfect for small living spaces and busy urban lifestyles. 

RVC’s study also showed that 93% of 2168 flat-faced dog owners (Pugs, French Bulldogs and English Bulldogs) surveyed would choose to own their current breed again in the future. 66% are also likely to recommend their current breed to a potential first-time dog owner.

The media definitely also has a large part to play in the ‘brachy boom’. Brachycephalic breeds have been in the media for years – think Churchill the Bulldog – however, it is their rise to fame on social media that has seen demand spike and health fall.

 

What are the statistics? 

The UK Kennel Club has reported a 30% growth in registrations of dogs of brachycephalic breeds between 2014 to 2019.

In 2019, 32% of all dog registrations were brachycephalic, compared to 26% in 2014. What is interesting to note is that one breed itself, the French Bulldog, made up 14% of all dog breed registrations in the UK in 2019. 

Frenchie's rising popularity from 2014-2019, based on kennel club UK registrations

The Kennel Club has seen French Bulldog registrations increase almost 5-fold over a period of 5 years. With their rise to fame on social media, such as famous owners like Lady Gaga and Holly Willoughby posting about their beloved pets, it is easy to see why their numbers have skyrocketed. With imports and unregistered litters, the number of Frenchies in the UK is likely to in actual fact be much higher!


So, what can you do to help?

Considering a brachycephalic dog - Consider if the breed is right for you, source from a responsible breeder, make appropriate lifestyle changes and get pet insurance

  1. Consider if a brachycephalic breed is right for you

First and foremost, consider if a brachycephalic dog breed is right for you. Dogs such as Pugs and Frenchies have lovely, gentle personalities and can make great family pets.

However, you should seriously consider the health issues they are likely to encounter and if you are able to support these. While most breeds of dog are more susceptible to some diseases than others, coping with breathing problems is a huge commitment in terms of both money and time and can be potentially fatal. If you want your dog to go on long walks, runs or hikes, avoid brachycephalic dogs as they are not able to cope with this level of exercise.

While you may have your heart set on a pug or a Frenchie, perhaps consider some of these other breeds of comparable size and with similarly lovely temperaments:

  • Basenji – Love the ‘bat ears’ of the Frenchie? Their longer-faced counterparts have the same comical trait and are known for their inability to bark – replacing it with a ‘yodelling’ sound!

  • Cocker Spaniel – This energetic and loveable breed is a popular family pet, and it’s easy to see why! They are gentle, friendly and get along well with children.

  • Corgi – The Corgi is a charming small sized dog and is known for being extremely loyal and intelligent. Unfortunately, the Queen doesn’t take to social media to endorse her favourite breed and recent years have seen the number of corgis in the UK drop dramatically, they’re now considered a vulnerable native breed.

  • Mix it up! – Cross breeds are often healthier than their pure-bred counterparts as they benefit from a larger gene pool. However, as the Kennel Club doesn’t ‘assure’ breeders for crosses, be sure to do your research to avoid those trying to make a bit of money out of the latest ‘fashionable’ cross. Perhaps consider a rescue dog, the centre will work closely with you to find a pooch that suits your lifestyle – check out our top tips for adopting here!

 

  1. Source them responsibly

If you decide to get one of these brachycephalic breeds, please source them responsibly. The British Veterinary Association called for breeders to consider welfare as their number one priority, not supplying puppies to meet demand. Find a breeder with a good reputation, that is following the necessary breeder schemes and be prepared to wait for the right puppy.

As with all puppies avoid those advertised on buy/sell websites with no other provenance as they may be linked to puppy farms or may even have been illegally imported to meet demand. You should always see the puppy with their mum and preferably their dad too.

 

  1. Manage their weight

Researchers at the University of Cambridge found obesity to be significantly associated with BOAS. Fat tissue causes further obstruction and decreased fitness puts more strain on an already struggling body. Due to their reduced exercise tolerance, this will probably mean managing weight by controlling their caloric intake - read more of our tips here

 

  1. Make lifestyle adjustments

Be very careful not to overdo the exercise, and have an action plan in case your dog overheats. It is advised that dogs are walked early in the morning or late at night. It would also be wise to discuss with your vet the amount of exercise your dog should have. Felcana’s very own pet activity tracker, Felcana Go, can help monitor your pet’s health and activity levels, to ensure they’re not overdoing it.

Be mindful that very stressful or exciting experiences could exacerbate symptoms, so try to predict and manage these before they become a problem. Introduce exciting things slowly, and plan ahead for stressful nights such as Bonfire Night in the UK, or Independence Day in the US.

 

  1. Be insured

It pays to be prepared! About 95-98% of dogs’ respiratory issues are improved by BOAS surgery, however these procedures are expensive and can cost around £1,500-2,500. Insurance can greatly help with these costs but be sure to check your policy covers breed-associated disease. 

We have brought brachycephalic breeds into the world and we have a moral responsibility as animal lovers to ensure our pet’s live happy and healthy lives.

 

  1. Spread awareness! 

Remember that people don’t keep brachycephalic dogs to be cruel! We have pets because we love them, but many people aren’t aware of the extent to which these dogs suffer. Try and educate without being patronising or judgemental, advice might be particularly welcomed by those planning to get a new dog and wanting to know the pros/cons of certain breeds. 

 

What do you think of brachycephalic dogs? We would love to hear your thoughts - please leave a comment below!

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