When I first met Apollo, my family’s boxer, I have to admit I was reluctant to consider adopting him. Not only was he very sick at the time, but he was (and still is) a boxer — a breed with more than their fair share of health problems that can strike throughout their lives. But there he was ... staring at me with those soulful brown eyes. I didn’t really stand a chance.

One of the problems that boxers and their owners frequently have to deal with is called BOAS. It doesn’t have anything to do with snakes but stands for brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome. The word "brachycephalic" describes a facial structure consisting of a short muzzle, wide head, and prominent eyes — think boxers, pugs, bulldogs, Pekingese, etc. This is not a natural head shape for dogs, and by breeding for it we’ve also selected for some potentially serious anatomic abnormalities, including:

  • Narrowed nasal openings
  • A narrow trachea (i.e., the windpipe)
  • A long soft palate
  • Outpouching of tissue into the larynx

These characteristics can combine to make breathing difficult for affected dogs. Typical symptoms include noisy breathing, working harder than normal to breathe, exercise intolerance, a tendency to overheat, and gagging. In severe cases, dogs may collapse due to low blood oxygen levels with even limited exercise.

Thankfully, Apollo is not "too" brachycephalic. He has a relatively long nose for a boxer and that definitely helps him avoid suffering through the symptom of BOAS. If I had a strong feeling that not only were we going to have to nurse him through his serious gastrointestinal issues, but then have to face surgery to help him breathe, my adoption decision may have been different (though my daughter and husband might have voted differently).

A recent study performed at the Royal Veterinary College in London, England, showed that owners of brachycephalic dogs seem to be unaware of the severity of their dogs’ condition. Owners reported that their pets snored while awake and frequently had difficulty breathing during daily exercise. However, more than half of these same owners also stated that their dogs did not have breathing problems and used statements like “other than being a bulldog” to explain their replies.

If you own a short-nosed dog, do not dismiss noisy breathing and an inability to exercise as being normal. These are symptoms of a disease brought about by our decision to design breeds with an abnormal facial anatomy. Since we brought about the problem, it is our responsibility to do what we can to fix it. Surgery to widen a dog’s nostrils and/or remove extra tissue from the soft palate and larynx can greatly improve an affected dog’s quality of life. If you’re not willing to consider intervening in this way, don’t get a brachycephalic dog.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Glen Jones / via Shutterstock