Brachycephalic cats, such as Persians and Himalayans, have flat faces that predispose them to certain health issues.
In dogs, brachycephaly is a well-known and well-studied condition. Bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers and Shih Tzus are just a few of the “short-nosed” flat-faced dogs that suffer from respiratory problems, bulging eyes, and overheating due to shortened nasal passages. While much is known about this disorder in canines, our feline friends are often overlooked even though they can also suffer from this condition.
What is brachycephaly?
The scientific term “brachycephaly” is derived from the ancient Greek, and means “short head”. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is defined as “having a
relatively broad, short skull usually with the breadth at least 80% of the length.”
Fast Fact: Brachycephaly is reported not only in animals, such as dogs and cats, but also in humans.
Animals with brachycephalic issues are physically different from their counterparts. Shortened noses and flat facial features tend to predominate, leading to smaller nasal cavities and restrictive airflow. Other characteristics of flat-faced animals include narrowed nostrils and tear ducts, and protruding eyeballs. These features predispose the animals to certain health problems.
1. BREATHING ISSUES
Respiratory issues are among the most common and concerning problems associated with flat-faced cats. The condition is known as Brachycephalic Obstructive Airways
Syndrome (BOAS), and the clinical signs, ranging from mild to severe and even life-threatening, can include mild respiratory changes, coughing, labored breathing, and low oxygen levels.
Many of these breathing problems arise from the conformation of the cat’s skull. In felines with normally-shaped skulls and facial features, the nasal passages are wider and longer. This allows the specialized anatomy and receptors within the nasal cavity to have a larger surface area, facilitating respiratory processes more efficiently. In brachycephalic breeds, this is not the case. For treatment options, see page 26.
Fast Fact: The flatter skull anatomy creates shorter and narrower nasal passages.
This not only means that less air moves through the nasal cavities; it also slows down the airflow and causes the specialized respiratory areas to function less efficiently.
2. EXERCISE AND HEAT INTOLERANCE
It goes without saying that the more air we can breathe in, the healthier the respiratory system will be. Properly-proportioned anatomical structures mean this process is achieved with great efficiency. The body will adapt to the amount of oxygen required to keep itself balanced and functioning at optimal levels. This is why when an animal
exercises or has an increased need for oxygen, more is taken in by the respiratory process. The anatomical structures within the nasal cavity allow for this.
In animals with brachycephalic disorders, however, the structural differences create less space for the air exchange process. This can also affect thermoregulation, which means
brachycephalic cats can suffer from exercise intolerance and become overheated very easily.
3. EYE PROBLEMS
Due to the shape of their skulls, flat-faced cats often have eyes that protrude out from the normal resting position in the sockets, leaving them more exposed and less protected. This can sometimes result in less sensitive eyes. Dust, pollen, and other environmental allergens, which are usually dealt with and removed by the eye’s natural protective ability, are more likely to cause problems, especially with decreased sensitivity.
Fast Fact: Because the eye is less sensitive, scratches and punctures to the corneal membrane are more likely.
Another concern often attributed to the skull shape of brachycephalic cat breeds is the distortion and pressure placed on the tear ducts. Normally, these ducts connect the tear glands in the eye to the nasal cavity, allowing for excess tears to drain into the nasal cavity and out of the body through the nose. However, the altered facial features in flat-faced cats means the ducts may not work normally, which can cause inflammation and a “back-up” of tear secretions. When this happens, excessive tearing occurs, increasing discharge and leading to chronically draining eyes and wet areas under and around the eyes.
4. DENTAL ISSUES
Dental problems can be a concern for cats with flat facial features. Two of the biggest issues include malocclusions and overcrowding of the teeth. In the development of a normal skull, proportional growth allows the teeth to occupy a specific space within the jaw. In brachycephalic breeds, however, everything is trying to occupy a more compact area. This can lead to overcrowding and teeth pushing on other teeth.
A more flattened facial bone structure with overcrowded teeth means that malocclusions are common. Under normal circumstances, the upper and lower jaw work together in a hinged motion to properly chew and break down food. This can be altered in cats with flat facial features, leading to improper chewing and digestive problems.
Treatment options for BOAS
Treatment is often targeted at the symptoms related to BOAS, and is also based on the severity of symptoms found in individual cats. Mild cases may require little to no treatment, or may benefit from occasional conventional medications such as decongestants, antihistamines, and antibiotics. More severe cases often require more advanced treatments and could include the addition of steroids and bronchodilators to improve respiration. In the severest of cases, more advanced techniques may be required. Surgical intervention is sometimes needed to correct the anatomical variations (stenotic nares and elongated soft palate) that lead to respiratory distress.
While conventional treatments are the mainstay for treating BOAS, integrative and holistic modalities can be used as well. Acupuncture, herbs, and appropriate essential oil use can help promote balance and wellness while strengthening respiratory functions.
Fast Fact: Finding an integrative veterinarian can be very beneficial if you have a brachycephalic cat.
If you’re planning to adopt a brachycephalic cat, do your homework first. It’s important to be aware of what you are signing on for when it comes to general wellness and veterinary care. With the proper knowledge and care, brachycephalic breeds and their mixes make wonderful companions, just like any other cat!
Veterinarian Dr. Jared Mitchell graduated from Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2004. In 2010, he opened Mitchell Animal Clinic in Mobile, Alabama, and began incorporating holistic modalities into his practice. Dr. Mitchell is completing certification to become a Certified Veterinary Medical Aromatherapist through the VMAA, and plans to achieve certifications in herbal medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic and more.