Brachycephalic Syndrome

Brachycephalic syndrome is a respiratory condition found in breeds of dogs and cats whose faces have a pushed-in appearance. Bred to conform to certain facial standards, these animals have shortened heads, which is the meaning of "brachycephalic."

Dogs such as bulldogs, pugs, Pekingese and Boston terriers, and cats such as Persian, Himalayan and Burmese, often suffer some degree of airway obstruction because of their anatomy. Respiratory problems in animals with brachycephalic syndrome are worsened by heat, humidity, exercise and obesity. In most cases the syndrome does not result in acute respiratory distress.

Characteristics of Brachycephalic Syndrome

Anatomically, brachycephalic syndrome is the result of deformities, including collapsed nostrils, an elongated soft palate, and obstruction of the larynx. These deformities often occur together. Collapsed nostrils and elongated soft palate are present at birth, but the larynx problem develops because of the other anatomical abnormalities.

Collapsed Nostrils

In animals with brachycephalic syndrome, not only are the nasal openings smaller than normal, but the nasal cartilage is abnormally soft, causing the nostrils to collapse during inhalation. This may result in mouth breathing, audible breathing and, sometimes, nasal discharge. When severe, collapsed nostrils may result in flattening of the chest.

Elongated Soft Palate

The soft palate, on the roof of the mouth, normally touches or only slightly overlaps the epiglottis. In animals with brachycephalic syndrome, however, the soft palate is longer, overlapping the epiglottis enough to interfere with respiration. Symptoms of this obstruction may be snoring, gurgling, snorting, stridor (high-pitched, musical breathing), or gagging.

Obstruction of the Larynx

Over time, animals with brachycephalic syndrome may develop even more labored breathing because of problems with the larynx. Due to ongoing restricted breathing, small pouches that project into the larynx, known as laryngeal saccules, enlarge and turn out, further narrowing the airways.

Symptoms of Brachycephalic Syndrome

Animals with brachycephalic syndrome can experience a variety of symptoms. These may include:

  • Coughing
  • Gagging
  • Snorting
  • Snoring
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Collapse

Treatments for Brachycephalic Syndrome

When the symptoms of brachycephalic syndrome are mild, simple home remedies may be effective. Keeping affected animals away from hot or humid conditions as much as possible, providing air-conditioning for them when necessary and controlling their levels of exercise and stress may all be helpful measures in maintaining their health and comfort.

More severe symptoms may require prescribed corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) or even oxygen therapy. While the underlying anatomy cannot be completely corrected, there are also several surgical procedures to be considered which may alleviate the problem. Such surgical procedures may involve widening the nostrils, shortening the soft palate, or removing laryngeal saccules.

As with many conditions, the earlier surgical corrections are made, the better, since symptoms will only worsen over time. Animals with severe respiratory difficulties, especially those that require surgery, should not be used for breeding.

Additional Resources