Suffering in silence – the problems of short nosed dogs
I was astounded to read recently in a press release from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) that over half of owners of short-nosed dogs believed that what, in other breeds, would usually be consider breathing problems, such as snoring, breathlessness, excercise intolerance and occasionally even collapse, were normal.
You might be forgiven for thinking the initials BOAS referred to a popular but now defunct state run UK airline company. In fact they stand for Brachiocephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome. ‘Brachiocephalic’ is the technical term for short nosed dogs and if there is a syndrome named after them then that’s got to be bad news.
BOAS is a collection of problems which have arisen as a result of generations of breeding for short noses. Such dogs, for example pugs, Pekingese, Lhasa Apsos, Shi-Tzus, bulldogs and so on have been deliberately selected for a condition known as ‘achondroplasia’, a congenital shortening of the long bones (which include limb and jaw bones). In most breeds this arises occasionally and is regarded as an abnormality; in brachiocephalics it is a requirement of the breed standards.
It is possible to see how problems arise when you consider that although the length of the bones in the face is reduced, the amount of soft tissue such as in the palate and tongue isn’t, so they end up being crumpled, concertina-style over the shortened bones. This means the nose and the airway at the back of the throat is permanently narrowed and as a result the amount of air that can get through and into the lungs is considerably restricted. This gives rise to snoring, open mouth breathing and a reduced ability to excercise even in ‘healthy’ individuals.
The real problems start though when these dogs get a sore throat. These infections are often viral, very common, highly contagious and usually referred to as ‘kennel cough’ or ‘canine cough’. In a normal dog these infections can be a nuisance but are generally self limiting, only occasionally needing treatment with anti-inflammatories or anti-biotics, very similar to when people have a cold. In our brachiocephalic dogs however, since the airway is already compromised such infections are usually serious and sometimes fatal as just a slight swelling in the upper respiratory tract (as is common in such cases) can completely block the throat and nose. These conditions need much more prompt and vigorous attention in short nosed breeds than would normally be required in other breeds.
There are other problems which complicate the picture further. Anyone who has ever tried to drink through a drinking straw where the end that is in the drink has been chewed flat knows that it is a very difficult task! As soon as any suction is applied to the top of the straw the soggy, narrow portion at the bottom closes like a valve and doesn’t allow any drink to come through. Well, this is a good model for a brachiocephalic dog’s nose, with the ‘soggy, narrow’ bit of the straw being the nostril. The nostrils are so narrowed in these breeds, when the dog dries to suck air into the lungs the effect is that the nostril tends to collapse, just like the drinking straw, leading to yet another restriction on normal airflow.
Eyes are another problem for these unfortunate (yet usually very sweet natured!) individuals. The shortening of the bones in the upper jaw causes crumpling not just of the internal tissues (as above) but also of the tissues of the face. So the skin becomes thrown up in enormous, hairy folds under the eye. This leads to a nasty, persistent dermatitis in the skin folds as a result of the rubbing of the hair against skin and, more seriously, can cause damage to the eye as some of the wrinkles are so pronounced the skin ends up rubbing on the eyeball itself. When you consider that brachyocephalic dogs also have abnormally shallow eye sockets coupled with very prominent eyes making it difficult for the eyelids to properly close and protect the eye; you can see how all this combines to make for a most uncomfortable existence at best and serious, permanent eye damage or even blindness at worst.
The problems described above relate to eyes and airways and some would say these were serious enough, but when you consider the problems I haven’t had space to mention, such as those involving the highly shortened leg bones (occasionally referred to as “Queen Anne” legs by furniture aficionados) you will begin to understand why there is increasing concern for the welfare of these dogs and questions over the ethics of continuing to breed for such extreme characteristics.
Whatever one’s opinions about the morals of such things I believe it is important to know what is involved if you are contemplating acquiring a member of a brachiocephalic breed. Reading breed web-sites and books you will find individuals rightly described as “plucky”, brave” and “big hearted” – most representatives of such breeds I have come across are lovely, good natured and cheerful individuals. What you won’t see, to any practical extent, is a descriptions of the immense problems they have to cope with during their lifetimes; hopefully this article and others like it will help to address that imbalance.
Packer, R.M.A., Hendricks, A., Burn, C.C., (2012) Do dog owners perceive the clinical signs related to conformational inherited disorders as ‘normal’ for the breed? A potential constraint to improving canine welfare Animal Welfare Vol. 21, supplement 1, pp. 81-93
available on line http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ufaw/aw/2012/00000021/A00101s1/art00010 [accessed 24-5-12]
Niall Taylor MRCVS 24-5-12