Why Do Bulldogs Always Breathe Hard?

by Betty Lewis
    If it's too difficult for your bulldog to breathe with his mouth closed, he made need surgery.

    If it's too difficult for your bulldog to breathe with his mouth closed, he made need surgery.

    piyagoon/iStock/Getty Images

    When someone calls your bulldog brachycephalic, don't take offense -- it's not an insult, it's a fact. At its Greek roots, it's true; "brachy" means short and "cephalic" means head. A bulldog is bred to have a short upper jaw, but his unique profile gives him a few special needs.

    The bulldog is one of several brachycephalic breeds, joining the boxer, pug, Pekingese, Boston terrier and other dogs showing a flat-faced appearance. Though it's part of your pup's character and makes him extra-handsome, it does present some special considerations. Digby's respiratory system is especially affected by his cranial build, sometimes making him work a little extra-hard to get his breath.

    Digby's respiratory tract is built a bit differently than non-brachycephalic dogs. His nostrils are narrower, technically giving him "stenotic nares." His soft palate, which separates the oral cavity from his nasal passage, is longer than it would be in a non-brachycephalic dog. That means his soft palate can reach into his throat, resulting in a snorting noise. His windpipe, or trachea, may be narrow in spots, referred to as tracheal stenosis. If Digby has to work too hard to breathe, he may develop everted laryngeal saccules, which is tissue from his larynx that intrudes into his windpipe. He may not experience all of these problems, but any of them can account for his labored breathing.

    Just because Digby's brachycephalic doesn't mean he's destined to live his life gasping for air. If his elongated soft palate is causing him trouble -- making breathing difficult or causing him to choke or spit up his dog food -- he can have surgery to shorten the soft palate. Other symptoms to look for include excessive panting, inability to calm down quickly after he's become excited and noisy breathing if he's overheated. If he has laryngeal saccules, the vet can remove the excess tissue at the same time the soft palate is corrected. If his nostrils are too small, you'll notice Digby struggle to breathe with his mouth closed; stenotic nares can also be surgically corrected.

    The only breathing condition in a dog's upper airways that can't be addressed by surgery is a narrow trachea. Marked by shortness of breath and gurgling sounds, the only way to help tracheal stenosis is to make sure Digby's trachea can keep up with his lungs' demand for oxygen. That means keeping his stress level to a minimum and not exercising him excessively. Weight management is particularly important because it means his body is less stressed and has greater room for oxygen exchange. Because he's brachycephalic, a bulldog also pants inefficiently, making him more prone to overheating and heat stroke.

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    About the Author

    Betty Lewis is a writer and editor specializing in pet care, animals, careers and emergency management. She previously ran an animal shelter, where she also served as a kennel attendant and dog trainer. Lewis holds a bachelor's degree in journalism, an M.B.A. and a master's degree in professional studies.

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