Flat-faced and short-nosed breeds of dogs are called brachycephalics. They have a lot of problems with respiration. Commonly affected breeds include the English bulldog, French bulldog, Boston terrier, pug, Pekinese, shih-tzu and boxer. They have many structural anomalies in their nose, throat and soft palate that make it difficult for the animal to take in air, and progressive breathing problems develop. Signs of upper airway obstruction arise from small openings of the nostrils called stenotic nares. They are also complicated by an elongation of the soft palate. Underdeveloped and narrowed trachea also occur in many of these breeds. Excessive soft tissue within the throat area that obstructs the airways prevents normal airflow into and out of the lungs.

Because breathing is affected, increased noises are heard from the nose and throat, usually on inspiration. Many dogs gag or cough, and often snore when they are relaxed or sleeping. Panting is common. Some dogs have so much trouble breathing that their gums turn blue and they become overheated. Engaging in any exercise can cause the dog to collapse. Many affected dogs are overweight.

The presence of these clinical signs in the short-faced breeds may allow a tentative diagnosis. Examination of the dog and its nose and oral cavity can help the veterinarian diagnose this as brachycephalic syndrome. X-rays of the chest help to find any additional problems of the trachea or lungs.

Emergency therapy may be necessary in the severely compromised animal. Sedation, oxygen therapy and lowering body temperature may all be needed. Conservative management in nonemergency cases includes weight loss, exercise restriction and avoiding situations that may precipitate respiratory problems. Surgical corrections of the nose and soft palate help to increase the flow of air into the lungs of these animals.

After surgery, very close monitoring is required. Gagging and coughing are common after surgery and may last for several days. Prognosis without surgery is poor because respiratory distress often worsens over time and may become life-threatening. Most dogs recover from surgery with immediate improvement in the respiratory signs.

Dr. Karsten Fostvedt is a veterinarian at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum.

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