Breathing Easy

There has been much media attention of late about brachycephalic dog breeds – dogs with flat-faces and short noses – and the breathing problems they face. While this might be worrying news for owners of these popular dogs, there is a surgical procedure that can drastically improve their quality of life ensuring everyone – brachys and their owners alike – breathe a little easier.

What’s the problem?

Brachycephalic breeds refer to flat-faced dogs with short-noses and heads. Think Pugs, Pekingese, Boxers, Boston Terriers and Bulldogs (French, British & American) to name a few. Because of their unique anatomy – small head, nose and airways and long, soft palate – many of these dogs have difficulty breathing.

Fur Life senior vet Dr Duncian Runciman, provides his perspective
on brachycephalic dog breeds and gives us the lowdown on the surgical procedure that can help them breath a little easier. 

Duncan says: “It’s all about how hard they work to breathe. It’s similar to trying to suck up a milkshake through a straw and hitting a big blob of ice cream. You suck so hard the straw collapses. That’s what’s going on with brachys when they breathe. They suck really hard with each breath, and that puts immense pressure on their airways and larynx. Gradually, they get weaker and weaker to the point of collapse, or in the worst case, suddenly die,” he says.

There is a fix for some breathing issues

Duncan is quick to point out brachys don’t need to live with breathing problems. There is an option owners can consider that can vastly improve their dog’s quality of life – soft palate surgery.

“We can do three things in the surgery. We can widen the outside of the nose, we can remove excess tissue around the larynx, and we can shorten the soft palate. This long, soft palate is the biggest problem brachys have so making it smaller is really important,” he says. “These three things can dramatically improve the amount of air brachys get with every breath. It varies from dog to dog but overall, the results are fantastic.”

He recalls one British Bulldog in particular whose life was changed by the simple surgery.

“Before surgery, the dog was almost collapsing on the surgery floor, struggling to breathe and walk around. It walked out of surgery better than it walked in, even if it was a bit groggy! And that dog now chases rabbits,” he says smiling.

British Bulldog before undergoing soft palate surgery!

British Bulldog after soft palate surgery – what a difference!

If your dog snores have him checked by a Fur Life Vet so you can both breath a little easier!

Do all brachycephalic breeds need surgery?

This is something that is assessed on a case by case basis as some have dogs have good-sized noses. But Duncan recommends most brachycephalic breeds should be assessed by a vet by six months of age, and that most will benefit from at least having their soft palate shortened.

Indicators that your dog could benefit from soft palate surgery:
  1. They snore
  2. They struggle to draw breath, or pant excessively, when going about their everyday activities
Special care needs for your brachy
Those of you who own a brachy know very well what lovely pets they make. As Duncan says: “They have terrific temperaments and personalities and love being a part of the family, so they’re great for kids and older people alike. Plus you don’t need a lot of room as many of them are on the smaller side.”

But there are some things you can do to help keep them extra safe, in addition to surgery:

  1. Watch their weight– excess fat puts added strain on organs & airways
  2. Don’t push them when exercising– know their limits & take short walks at cooler times
  3. Use a harness rather than a neck collar
  4. Keep them cool– small brachys overheat quickly. It doesn’t have to be hot; a long walkcan do it
  5. Know the heat stress signs (see below)
Warning signs of heat stress
  • 1st stage – increased panting & slowing down
  • 2nd stage – excessive panting, raised body temperature, collapsing, vomiting &/or diarrhoea

At the second stage, your brachy is overheating internally and in real danger. Get them out of the sun, cool them by dousing them in water and seek immediate vet attention.

Duncan is also a fur-parent to a brachy – a happy, little French Bulldog by the name of Winston. In Winston’s case, he only needed a soft palate resection as he has a wide, open nose. But it made a world of difference to his running abilities – something Duncan’s kids are happy about … but not so the cattle when Winston finds his way through the fence!

There was another added bonus of the surgery: “Winston no longer snores so he can sleep in the house,” Duncan laughs.

Dr Duncan Runciman
Fur Life Vet Gippsland