Adopting a brachycephalic dog: Adopting a dog part I’ve lost track: Special Concerns

These last two posts will hopefully finish up the “Adopting a Dog” series; the rest of the posts are here.

Some of the dogs that I think are great candidates for low-risk adoption (in other words, the breed tends to be easy to get along with and friendly with people and cats and other dogs and doesn’t need a ton of exercise) are either brachycephalic (short-nosed) or achondroplastic (short-legged).

The short-legged dogs get extra adoptability points from me because they tend to give you more bang for your buck, exercise wise. Most were bred specifically because they could do the same job as their taller compatriots but at half or a quarter of the speed; think about Bassets and Bloodhounds, Cardigans and Shepherds or Collies, Sussex Spaniels versus Springers. They have every bit as much ability and talent as the taller dogs, but a lot of generations of breeding went into making them a slower, less driven version. So they tend to be able to be mentally and physically satisfied with less exercise.

The short-faced dogs make up a large proportion of the bred-since-forever-to-be-loving-companions breeds, like Pugs and Tibetan Spaniels and Pekes and Shih Tzu and Boston Terriers et al.  They’ve been bred in great abundance by bad breeders and puppy mills, so they tend to show up in rescue reasonably often. Again, these are breeds that are designed to be undemanding (except in upkeep and grooming) and loving, so they can be great dogs to rescue.

However, since both qualities (short legs, short faces) are a) mutations and b) very visually striking, when a dog is poorly bred these aspects of their bodies can go very wrong. Bad breeders know that buyers want cute, short legs. So they’ll breed anything with cute, short legs, regardless of the potential for great harm. They know that people want short faces and big eyes, so if it has a supershort face and big eyes, it’s a prize, even if the dog is horribly impaired.

So unless you want to take on far more than just the normal (huge) responsibility associated with a dog, you’ll do yourself a big favor if you start with a structurally sound dog.

Let’s start with faces.

(I’m going to be filling these in with pictures over the next day or so, because it’s difficult to find pictures that I’m not infringing on copyrights to use. And if I can’t find pics that are royalty-free, I’ll give you links instead.)

Poorly bred brachycephalic dogs have issues with eyes, skin, nose, palate, and teeth. You can quickly assess these and know whether you’re dealing with minor or major problems.

EYES: The eyes should have CORNERS, and the body of the eye should not be bulging out of the socket. You should not see a white when the dog is relaxed. I’ve seen this the very worst in rescue Pekes and Pugs, probably because people think the goggly eyes are cute when the dogs are puppies. Many of these dogs have nothing holding the eyes in except skin; the eye is not at all seated in its socket and it actually looks like the dog is looking out of the sides of its eyes. This shallow seating of the eye means that ANY stress of the skin or ANY blow to the eye area can cause the eye to proptose, or come out of its socket. A proptosed eye can be saved if you are VERY fast and don’t panic, but even if the eye is cosmetically saved it often loses function because the muscles and nerves are stretched and damaged when they eye comes out.




Next, if this is a long-haired dog (Shih Tzu, some Lhasas, Affenpinscher or Brussels Griffon, etc.), look carefully at the eyes and the coat surrounding them. Many dogs that come into rescue have been neglected in terms of grooming, and when hair is constantly rubbing the eyes it can make the dog blind. The eye should look clear, not even a tiny bit foggy, and there should be very little tear production. That red-brown stain below the eyes is OK, though anyone who tells you it’s “normal” for these breeds is actually incorrect (the color is from a type of yeast, so changing the diet and grooming carefully will almost totally fix it). Even a tiny bit of green discharge would be normal for a rescue. But if the dog’s eyes are structurally normal, you will not see streaming from the eyes; the hair will not be wet.


Blind from neglect:

So, again: Eyes that do not bulge; little or no white; coat around the eyes should be dry; eyes should be bright and not foggy.

SKIN: The big issue are the wrinkles. It’s entirely possible to keep a short-faced dog’s skin clean; this is another case where people will try to tell you that it’s normal for the wrinkles to be dirty. In a rescue, especially one that has not been groomed yet, DIRT is to be expected. Major inflammation, especially if the skin smells bad or the dog is scratching elsewhere on its body or has very red paws and chest (indicating lots of licking), is a sign of allergies. People rescue these dogs thinking that it’s just that the dog hasn’t been groomed and they end up with thousands of dollars in vet bills because the dog is systemically allergic. Now I feed a raw diet and I am at the vet every other week, so for ME allergies would not be a deal breaker. I am pretty sure I could fix them.  But it’s something you need to think about if you are not as dog-obsessed as I am.

(Allergies are not because the dog is short-faced – they’re because short-faced dogs are so often exploited by bad breeders, and bad breeders don’t care about the immune system and they’ll bred whatever has its bits and pieces. So allergies are a huge problem in all popular breeds. But whereas a Lab with discharge all over the place and red staining everywhere looks obviously ill, a Shih Tzu with the same condition just looks horribly neglected. Learning to tell the difference will help you, even if you decide to take the dog home, because you’ll be mentally and emotionally prepared for what may be a lifetime of special effort for this dog.)

Staining from constant licking: (this is AFTER a groom–the dog is normally very, very red in those areas)

Irritation/infection in face wrinkles:

Good clean wrinkles:

OK, NOSE: The bad thing that happens when these breeds are not carefully bred is something called Stenotic Nares. It can also show up in well-bred dogs, but good breeders know what it is and will make sure the dog gets it fixed before there’s long-term damage.

Stenotic nares basically means that the nostrils are too narrow. When you look straight-on at a dog’s nose, each nostril looks like a comma. In a healthy dog, the comma is wide and the dog breathes easily and silently through its nose. In a dog with stenotic nares, the comma is very thin and the passage for air is very tiny. When the dog is forced to breathe through its nose it whistles or snorts.

Stenotic nares requires a simple fix – a vet actually bores a larger hole through the nostril.It needs only a few sutures and some vets do it with none. The reason you want to avoid a stenotic dog, especially an older one, is because when a dog cannot breathe through its nose, it breathes through its mouth. But the dog’s body is not designed to breathe like that constantly. Dogs pant, but most of the time when they’re relaxed their mouths are closed. It’s extra effort to keep the mouth open, and the heaving can be complicated by (or may even cause) the last and perhaps most major issue.

A spectacularly severe stenosis below (most are not this bad):

Immediately after surgery (that’s why it’s all red and you can still see the suture to the left of the nostril – this will heal and look like a normal dog nose:

PALATE: The soft palate on some (SOME, not all) short-faced dogs extends too far into the back of the mouth and the beginning of the airway. Sometimes it’s normal when the dog is born but becomes inflamed; sometimes the dog is born with it. I strongly suspect, though I am a layperson and don’t have good data on this to show you, that the mouth-breathing that dogs with stenotic nares are forced to do contributes to their palate problems. However it happens, the result is the same.

The dog can breathe, but it’s breathing past a flap of tissue. Every breath requires more effort to move the flap and let air in.

Everybody “knows” that Pugs and Pekes sound like asthmatic old men, right? WRONG. That sound, the grating or hoarse intake of each breath, is the palate. Healthy short-faced dogs do make more noise when they breathe IF THEY’RE EXCITED, but the breaths should be easy. They should NOT make noise when they’re relaxed and they should NOT have heaving sides when they breathe.

Not only is a problematic palate uncomfortable for the dog, the vastly increased effort each breath requires tires out the heart. Dogs with palate issues tend to also have heart problems, especially if the condition has gone untreated for years.

Like stenotic nares, palates can be treated fairly easily. It’s not a risky or complicated surgery. But it IS expensive and if the dog is older the damage may already be done. This is another case where I’m not telling you not to adopt the dog – just do so with expectations of substantial intervention as soon as possible. It’s not something you can let go for months after you bring the dog home; imagine what it would be like to feel like there was a piece of Saran Wrap in your throat.

So nose and breathing recap: The dog should breathe easily and silently through its nose. If the dog is excited to see you and won’t stop panting, feed him a tiny treat. That usually makes them close their mouths for a few seconds and you can hear the breathing. When the dog is excited, a little noise is OK. When the dog is just sitting around, the breathing should be quiet even if the mouth is open.

OK, last but not least: TEETH. Bad breeders don’t care if their dogs have teeth coming up in the dogs’ ears as long as the dog has a functional reproductive system and makes cute puppies. For that reason, many of the poorly bred ones have SERIOUSLY bad teeth, both in bite (how the teeth meet in the mouth) and in health. I will do bite checks myself, but if you’re not experienced with dogs you should ask the foster home or animal control officer or shelter volunteer to show you this. You can make it very non-threatening if you ask them to show you how to brush the dog’s teeth once you get him home.

The teeth should be reasonably white in front, though they are often stained in back. Brown or tan staining is normal for a dog over three or four years old but is not normal for a puppy and would indicate something is going wrong. The teeth should be ivory/tan at worst; NOT grey. The gums surrounding the back teeth should not be red or puffy. When the dog eats a soft treat, he shouldn’t drop it or act like chewing hurts. The front teeth should be somewhere close to each other – an overbite or underbite of a quarter-inch never hurt anyone, but an overbite of a full inch makes the mouth very subfunctional. That, by the way, is what Ginny (our “designer dog” who probably cost someone a few thousand bucks) has; her lower jaw is so much smaller than her upper that it fits both behind and inside her upper jaw and her teeth do not meet anywhere except at the final molars. Similarly, a very exaggerated underbite (where the bottom teeth are in front of the top ones) makes it more difficult for the dog to eat and leads to malpositioning of the teeth and the potential for more decay.

Chloe obviously gets some traffic related to her overbite:

Pretty severe underbite:

Tomorrow: The achondroplastic dog.


4 thoughts on “Adopting a brachycephalic dog: Adopting a dog part I’ve lost track: Special Concerns

  1. This is a very contentious issue at the moment. Breeders must start to take note of the general backlash against exaggerated features which can effect a dog’s health. I know the KC is looking at this as a matter of urgency, but at the end of the day it is down to individual breeders.

  2. I want to make VERY VERY clear that the breeders at fault for creating unhealthy short-faced dogs are BAD ONES. There are thousands of gloriously healthy, free-breathing Pugs, Shih Tzus, Boston Terriers, and Bulldogs gaiting around show rings and living as loving pets across this country. Good breeders DO NOT LET their dogs show up in shelters. BAD breeders DO NOT CARE about health. That’s why there are unhealthy dogs in rescue, NOT because standards or breeds must be changed. The fault is not the standard. The fault is squarely with those breeders who 1) Produce unhealthy dogs and then 2) do not take responsibility for them, allowing millions to end up in shelters.

  3. Are there companion dogs with longer muzzles and normal-sized eyes? Because that healthy pug was almost cute, but wasn’t gorgeous like your corgis.

  4. Thanks for this checklist. What can you do about buggy eyes, if anything?

    Aggie (super tiny, badly bred black pug) can breath well, has good teeth and a minimum of wrinkles and is raw fed, but she’s got some buggy eyes. She also loves to run around like a maniac, which makes me afraid that she could damage them as she’s fearless and is constantly doing nutty things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s