By Carol McCarthy
Ah, summer. For many of us, the sweet, warm days of summer fly past, so we try to squeeze in as much time as possible outdoors with our pets. But for brachycephalic dogs — breeds with short faces and snouts — hot weather can usher in health problems.
This article was verified for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
The short, broad heads of brachycephalic dogs include such facial features as smaller nostrils, long soft-palates, and extra tissue that can extend into airways.
Dr. Sarah Carter of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Angell Animal Medical and Adoption Center in Boston explains it this way: Brachycephalic dogs have proportionally smaller and often weaker airways, excess folds in their throat and voice box, and visibly larger tongues and narrowed nostrils. Brachycephalic breeds include Pugs, Brussels Griffons, Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, Bulldogs, Chow Chows, Pekingese, Lhasa Apso, Bull Mastiffs, Rottweilers, Boxers, Tibetan Spaniels, and English Toy Spaniels.
Because of their anatomy, these dogs can suffer from a condition called Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome — breathing problems in the upper airway. Hot, humid weather can worsen this problem as dogs pant more to cool off internally. (Dogs don't sweat to stay cool — they pant.) Symptoms include rapid and noisy breathing, excessive panting, difficulty swallowing, inability to tolerate physical activity, and even collapse, says Dr. Neil Marrinan of Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Both Carter and Marrinan say that the key to preventing this problem is keeping your dog out of the heat.
In severe cases, your vet will need to treat your dog with oxygen, or perform a procedure to help open the dog’s airways. “There are surgeries that can help open up the breathing passages and make it a little easier for these dogs to breath, though they still have more trouble than other dogs,” Carter says.
Given their predisposition for breathing difficulties, brachycephalic dogs are at higher risk of heat stroke because it is difficult for them to pant enough to cool off.
“If they are drawing in wet (humid) air, even if it is not extremely hot, they can't offload heat,” Marrinan explains. “When that happens, the dogs increase their pant rate, and that works their muscles more, raising their temperature, and they overheat.”
Such difficulties can take place quickly, and they can be life-threatening, Marrinan notes. Dogs can overheat and die within an hour. This can happen when they are left unattended in cars or outdoors (e.g, in the yard). While any breed can suffer heat stroke if left outside or in a hot car, it is particularly important to never leave brachycephalic dogs unattended in hot weather, Carter says.
If your dog seems overheated — panting heavily, lethargic — Carter advises owners to immediately put rubbing alcohol on the dog’s paws, place them in front of an air conditioner, and get them to the vet as soon as possible. Never put your dog in ice water or cover it with wet towels, she noted. “These seem like good ideas, but they actually prevent the dog from being able to release body heat,” she says.
In addition to breathing distress, short-faced breeds often have light skin and short hair — think pugs and bulldogs — which can make them prone to sunburn. Staying out of the sun is the best way to prevent problems, but definitely keep your dog sheltered during high, mid-day sun, and apply sunscreens that don’t contain zinc or PABA, Marrinan suggests.
Hot spots (red, irritated areas) and skin infections are most common during the height of the heat and allergy season, Marrinan says. And many short-faced breeds, such as bulldogs, have wrinkly skin with multiple folds that remains moist, leaving them prone to problems even when it’s not hot.
Skin fold pyoderma (bacterial infection), chafing in the arm or leg pits, infections between toe folds or in a dog’s corkscrew tail — think Boston Terrier — become more common in warmer months. Thoroughly drying off your dog after swimming and baths will help, Marrinan says. In addition, pet supply stores sell powders and rinses that you can use to treat your dog’s skin after a dip in the pond.
Pet parents might think that their dogs are at higher risk of injury from inhaling barbed seeds, thorns, or other sharp flora while exploring their back yard or dog park due to their shortened nasal passages, but Marrinan says this is rarely an issue, and grass or foreign objects embedded in the nasal passages is uncommon. However, if your dog is sneezing repeatedly and has nasal discharge, take it to the vet, as all dogs can get upper respiratory infections, he notes.
With breathing difficulty and overheating the most serious concerns, take extra care when allowing your brachycephalic breed outside in summer, and minimize the time she is left unsupervised, even in a closed yard with shade, the vets say. Always have plenty of cold water available and easily accessible for your dog, and provide a cool, shady place to shelter for breaks, meals, and naps. And stay attuned to your dog’s behavior and watch for signs of distress, says Marrinan.
“Be flexible and pay attention to your pet. All dogs pant, but if they can't catch their breath and settle down their breathing rate, then stop what you're doing,” Marrinan says. And, he cautions, heat is not limited to daylight hours. “The humidity in the evening can be sneaky and just as dangerous.”
Did you know that cats can also be affected by this physical feature? Learn more about the special needs of brachycephalic breed cats: