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Brachycephalic Syndrome in Dogs

Our Diamond Bar veterinarians discuss the issue of brachycephalic airway syndrome in dogs, provide information regarding the signs to look out for, and discuss the various treatment options available.

What is brachycephalic airway syndrome?

Brachycephalic dogs, with their flat faces and skulls, commonly suffer from respiratory issues known as brachycephalic syndrome.

The term "brachycephalic" can be broken down into two parts: "brachy," which means shortened, and "cephalic," which refers to the head. Therefore, "brachycephalic" describes breeds of dogs that have a shortened head, typically with flattened faces that many people find cute. Unfortunately, these distinct features can also cause health issues for these dogs.

The veterinary term for the condition that affects these breeds is "brachycephalic airway syndrome," which includes upper airway abnormalities. Some of these abnormalities include:

Stenotic nares: If a dog is experiencing stenotic nares, it will have abnormally narrowed or small nostrils restricting the airflow into the nostrils.

Extended nasopharyngeal turbinates: Nasopharyngeal turbinates are tissue-covered bone ridges that help warm and humidify the air the dog breathes in. However, when they are too long, they can cause a blockage that affects airflow.

Elongated soft palate: A dog with a long soft palate can have their windpipe partially blocked.

Laryngeal collapse: Chronic stress on the dog's larynx can result in laryngeal collapse, causing a restriction in airflow.

Everted laryngeal saccules: The laryngeal saccules, small sacs or pouches within the larynx, may be sucked into the airway, causing an obstruction.

Hypoplastic trachea: If a dog experiences a hypoplastic trachea, it means their trachea has a smaller than average diameter.

Other Problems Caused By Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome

There is a link between changes in the lungs and gastrointestinal tract, particularly in brachycephalic airway syndrome. These include:

Bronchial collapse: This is a condition that happens when the bronchi, the small airways in the lungs, weaken and narrow, making it harder for air to flow freely. This can lead to respiratory distress and breathing difficulties, especially in dogs. Bronchial collapse is more common in brachycephalic breeds due to their structural abnormalities, which contribute to the risk of this condition. Chronic inflammation and irritation of the airways can also worsen the symptoms.

Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER):  Acid reflux, commonly known as GER, happens when stomach acid and digestive enzymes flow backward into the esophagus. Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome can cause anatomical abnormalities such as elongated soft palate and narrowed airways that can contribute to GER in affected dogs. Chronic GER can result in esophageal inflammation, discomfort, and difficulty swallowing.

Chronic Gastritis: Gastritis refers to the inflammation of the stomach lining, which can be caused by various factors such as dietary indiscretion, infections, and underlying health conditions. Brachycephalic dogs are more likely to develop chronic gastritis due to their respiratory difficulties and altered swallowing patterns. Symptoms of gastritis may include vomiting, decreased appetite, abdominal pain, and lethargy.

Intestinal Fluid Aspiration: In cases of severe gastroesophageal reflux, where the stomach contents flow back into the esophagus, there is a risk of intestinal fluids entering the airways. This can cause respiratory complications and contribute to respiratory infections, pneumonia, and worsen breathing difficulties. Aspiration of intestinal fluids is a severe complication of Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome and requires immediate veterinary intervention.

Dog Breeds With a High Risk of Developing Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome

  • Bulldogs (French and English)
  • Boxers
  • Boston Terriers
  • Pekingese
  • Shar-Pei
  • Pugs
  • Shih Tzus
  • Bull Mastiffs

How To Take Care of High-Risk Breeds

Caring for high-risk breeds with Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome requires special attention and tailored control strategies to address their unique needs and minimize health risks.

Here is some information on how to take care of a high-risk dog:

  • Regular veterinary check-up 
  • Weight management
  • Environmental modification (provide shades and fresh water all the time).
  • Regular exercise (low-impact exercise to improve cardiovascular health and maintain muscle tone).
  • Dietary consideration (choose food with smaller kibble sizes to reduce the risk of choking).
  • Respiratory support (house harness instead of a collar for a walk and provide a well-ventilated sleeping area).
  • Monitor signs of respiratory distress ( be vigilant for signs of respiratory distress such as noisy breathing, coughing, and gagging).

Symptoms Of Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome in Dogs

Brachycephalic dogs may experience symptoms such as:

  • Have noisy breathing, especially when they breathe in
  • Gag when they are swallowing
  • Have the inability to partake in exercise
  • Develop cyanosis causing blue tongue and gums related to the lack of oxygen
  • Occasionally collapse, especially with over-activity, excitement, or excessive heat or humidity
  • Heat intolerance 
  • Difficulty sleeping and snoring

Diagnosis Of Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome in Dogs

The diagnosis of brachycephalic airway syndrome is dependent on the specific abnormalities affecting the dog. While stenotic nares can be diagnosed through a simple physical examination, other abnormalities can be more complex and challenging to diagnose.

For instance, if an endoscopy is required, the veterinarian would need to administer general anesthesia to the dog to assess the degree of stenosis (narrowing) of the nares, soft palate, and larynx.

Depending on the specific issue, your vet may suggest an X-ray of the chest and throat area, which can help visualize anatomical abnormalities such as narrowed airways, elongated soft palate, and tracheal cables.

Treatment for Dogs with Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome 

Early diagnosis is crucial for treating most conditions that affect dogs, including brachycephalic airway syndrome. Surgery is the most common form of treatment for this condition and can correct the abnormality and improve the dog's breathing. In addition to surgical intervention, medication such as corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and oxygen therapy can also be beneficial for short-term relief.

Surgery for Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome in Dogs

Brachycephalic airway syndrome is commonly treated with surgery to correct the abnormality and improve airflow and breathing abilities. It is possible that the incision site may swell after surgery, so your vet will closely monitor your dog to ensure their breathing remains unaffected throughout the recovery period.

How successful a surgery can be?

While surgery can significantly improve respiratory function and quality of life for many dogs with Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome, it is not without risks.

 It depends on several factors in dogs, including the severity of the condition, the specific anatomical abnormalities present, and the dog's overall health.

However, it is important to have a realistic understanding of the potential risks and outcomes associated with the surgery. Therefore, dog owners should discuss the potential benefits, risks, and expected outcomes of surgery with their veterinarian.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

If you have a brachycephalic dog experiencing symptoms like those mentioned above, our vets can help. Book an appointment at Diamond Bar Veterinary Clinic today.

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