Most people recognize pet overpopulation, cruelty and animal fighting as animal welfare issues, but there's one that many don't think about or may even consider cute.
We're talking about extreme physical traits, such as the excessively flat faces seen in many Persian cats, bulldogs, Pekingese, pugs, Boston terriers and other brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds. Snorting and snoring, or the undershot jaw of the bulldog or boxer, are often thought to be endearing characteristics.
But when those traits cause animals to gasp for air after minimal exertion, develop heatstroke or even die from exposure to heat and humidity, it's no life for a dog -- or cat. It's not great for their humans, either, who pay high veterinary bills to treat their animals or lose them to an early death. Pets with extremely flat faces are prone to a condition called brachycephalic syndrome.
They may have pinched or narrowed nostrils, known as stenotic nares; an elongated soft palate, which partially blocks the airway; everted saccules, small sacs just inside the larynx that can turn inside out and block the airway; and a hypoplastic, or narrowed, trachea.
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When the nostrils are too small, nasal cartilage is too soft or the airway is blocked, it's difficult for the animal to draw breath. Dogs with the combination of a short muzzle and undershot jaw can also have difficulty breathing. A side effect of brachycephalic syndrome is that pets with it have a harder time regulating their body temperature in hot or cold weather. They can't stay outdoors in warm weather, let alone go for a walk. Allergies can worsen the problem.
To protect pets with brachycephalic syndrome, it's important not to let them get fat or overexert themselves in the heat. They must stay in an air-conditioned environment, and need plenty of shade and fresh water when outdoors. Walking dogs with a harness instead of a collar that puts pressure on the neck can also help them breathe easier.
Noisy breathing, gurgling, gasping and a foamy nasal discharge are all signs that a dog is having trouble getting enough air. Other signs of difficulty breathing are fainting and blue gums and tongue, indicating a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream.
Left untreated, chronic lack of oxygen puts a serious strain on the heart, and breathing difficulty worsens with age. For dogs with serious respiratory difficulty, surgery can correct stenotic nares, elongated soft palate and everted saccules. A dog who can't walk across the room without turning blue and gasping for air is a clear candidate for reconstructive surgery. It's best if this is done early in life if it's obvious that a pet has a problem.
When the procedure is performed before the problem becomes serious, it usually has good results. Surgery may be less effective if performed when animals are older. If necessary, stenotic nares and an elongated soft palate can be corrected at the same time. A good time to do it is when the animal is spayed or neutered. You'll be able to hear the difference in breathing immediately after surgery.
No one wants to experience the heartbreak of a pet who can't breathe. Animal lovers can help by not purchasing dogs or cats with extreme facial conformation, no matter how cute they are. Breeders can work toward producing animals with not-so-flat faces and larger nostrils that enable them to breathe effortlessly and do all the things a pet should be able to do: chase a toy, walk around the block, play at the beach or compete in dog sports.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com.