A Breath of Fresh Air: Why Soft Palate Surgery for Bulldog Breeds is Necessary

By Patty Khuly, DVM on Oct. 16, 2009
A Breath of Fresh Air: Why Soft Palate Surgery for Bulldog Breeds is Necessary

Last reviewed on November 5, 2015

A couple of years ago my French bulldog underwent a simple procedure to repair her soft palate. Though a little bloody and a bit painful, my then eight year-old Sophie Sue came through brilliantly.

Within 24 hours she was good as new –– better, even, for her ability to breathe (almost) like a normal dog. But too few pug-faced breed owners opt for this simple surgery.

As a kid I loved bulldogs, but thought I’d ever own one. I’d seen too many train wreck cases suffer the multiple abnormalities that are inherent in their breed (due to unchecked breeding pracices). My three Frenchies (one is no longer with us) have sort of fallen in my lap –– ironically, due to the very health concerns I despise. Still, I love them dearly, and because I have the means to care for them, I can live with their shortcomings knowing they’re better off in my home than in most others.

Short-faced (brachycephalic) bulldogs (and many other blunt-faced breeds) have small (hypoplastic) windpipes, closed up (stenotic) nostrils, excess oral and respiratory tissues clogging their airways, dwarfed limbs with abnormal joint angles and spinal abnormalities (leading to severe arthritis), a predisposition to obesity, and often suffer severe skin allergies, to boot, which makes them prone to infections in all the deep skin folds they possess.

For the record, Frenchies fare much better than English bulldogs in almost every aspect of their health. I strongly recommend that bulldog lovers consider this breed over the English variety. Fewer puppy mills and backyard breeders seem to breed Frenchies –– so far –– so their genetics are often not as warped. Their smaller size makes for fewer orthopedic issues, too.

I tell everyone who is not dead-set on spending lots of cash in vet bills, running high AC bills, and working daily on hygienic ministrations to stay far away from these breeds. Yet the English variety is one of the most popular breeds at our hospital. Some clients buy them to breed them, figuring they’ll make a bundle of cash, before realizing that small litters with mandatory, expensive C-sections and a lower-than-normal survival rate (for the mom, too) is a poor choice for an entrepreneurial endeavor. To make matters worse, too few owners are willing to undertake the necessary procedures required to make their bulldogs comfortable: daily cleanings, arthritic management, allergy testing and treatment, and surgeries to open their airways or remove redundant skin when necessary.

To properly care for a bulldog, soft palate resection is perhaps the most necessary procedure, dramatically improving their comfort level. When dogs can’t breathe well because this long, droopy piece of surplus flesh clogs the opening to the larynx, it’s a must. If it’s not removed, the fleshy soft palate gets ever-droopier as they age, worsening their respiratory symptoms. Here's a visual primer:

Brachycephalics snore more (experiencing disturbed sleep), get hotter in simple situations (like taking a car ride), and can even suffer heat stroke when excited, anxious or over-exercised. Even a walk down the block in South Florida, for instance, is impossible for these guys. Consequently, their joints hurt more with the weight they inevitably gain and the muscle mass they eventually lose.

It’s a common cycle that’s rarely reversed, even by vigilant, hard-working, responsible owners. Few people are bulldog-worthy; they assume these problems are part of having a short-faced breed –– and thus explain them away. Worse still, some consider the rasping breath and the snoring as "cute."

Last year, my cousin’s Frenchie, Hugo, was neutered and had his soft palate shortened at the same time. I did the first part and I imported my boyfriend for the second. He’s a vet surgeon –– and you should know that a specialist should always perform this procedure unless a GP (general practioner) is specifically trained for it and takes on many resections a year.

By the time he woke up, Hugo was feeling pretty groggy but his breathing was already markedly improved. His typical rasp was gone and he seemed minimally put out by the whole thing. There’s something to be said about the well known gentle bulldog demeanor, here. They recover very well from anesthesia –– with careful monitoring to ensure their airways aren’t clogged by their large tongues and other tissues upon awakening.

If you have a bulldog or a pug, you should know that you almost certainly need to ask your veterinarian about this procedure. Yet even vets don’t always get it. To be sure, the surgery’s not cheap, but our planet’s supply of "free" oxygen is priceless to your dog. 

Dr. Patty Khuly


Patty Khuly, DVM


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