First things first — this is a LOT of reading, and can, at times, be rather alarming. The chances that your dog, or your potential dog, might be afflicted with any of these conditions drops rapidly with the amount of testing and screening your breeder does. That said, even the most conscientious breeder, using only the most thoroughly screened dogs, can still occasionally produce afflicted dogs. This is a fact which anyone considering the purchase of a Frenchie needs to be aware of.
The Breathing System of the French Bulldog
Frenchies are a Brachycephalic breed – a fancy word which basically means dogs (and cats, in the case of Persians and some other breeds) with short muzzles, flat faces and condensed breathing systems.
This is what’s responsible for the adorable snorting and snuffling sounds your Frenchie makes – but it’s also a serious matter for your dog’s health. They also combine to make anesthetic a serious matter for the breed. Anesthetic should only ever be administered for the most critical of procedures – no ‘putting under’ for simple nail clippings, please. Isoflourine is the most popular type of anesthesia, for various reasons, but this is a topic best discussed with your Veterinarian.
The shorter breathing system of the French Bulldog is also what puts them at such very strong risk for heat stroke. Shorter airway=less possibility of cooling the air which the dogs draws into its body. Never, EVER underestimate your dog’s susceptibility to heat stroke. Limit their exposure to temperatures which you might personally find only mildly hot, be conscious of your dog’s proximity to hot pavement, NEVER leave your Frenchie in a locked car in even warm weather, and always allow them lots of access to fresh water, shade, and cool areas to escape from heat. Be alert, and be prepared with the things you need to save your dog’s life.
Read a more detailed guide to identifying and treating heat stoke here.
Elongated Soft Palate
One of the the most common forms of airway obstruction in Brachycephalic breeds is due to an elongated soft palate. The soft palate is an extension of the hard palate which forms the roof of the mouth. The purpose of the soft palate is to serve as a mobile flap preventing food and water from entering the nasal passages during swallowing. A soft palate that is elongated will either hang in front of the airway or will fall into the larynx during inhalation.
Dogs affected by chronic airway obstruction (CAO) tend to breathe rather noisily when excited. Mouth breathing, snoring and snorting are characteristics of this condition. These characteristics become even more pronounced when the dog is hot or during periods of exercise. The dogs frequently gag in an attempt to clear their airway and occasionally bring up foam and saliva while eating or drinking. The harder the dog breathes, the greater the swelling and elongation of the soft palate. Most often an elongated soft palate is difficult to positively confirm other than while the dog is under general anesthesia, surgical correction is usually done at the same time.
Stenotic Nares (constricted nostrils) occurs exclusively in brachycephalic dogs. This birth defect can not be overemphasized. The cartilages that help to shape the nostrils are too soft. As the pup breathes in the nostril collapses restricting or shutting off the air flow. In severe cases the pup’s chest becomes flattened. There is a nasal discharge that can either appear as watery or foamy. Breathing is labored and accompanied by snorting. When excited or active they tend to breathe through their mouths. This excess laboring in order to bring oxygen to the lungs puts additional stress on their systems, and with reduced air flow they tend not to thrive. These dog should be treated surgically as soon as possible. Treatment normally consists of removing a portion of the nasal cartilage to enlarge the nostril openings.
Tracheal collapse is the name given to a syndrome in which the rigid structure of the trachea becomes weakened. This weakened area collapses due to external and/or internal pressure created during activity, thus interfering with normal respiration. The weakened area becomes irritated. Since coughing and respiratory exertion can cause further irritation, clinical signs will worsen and the condition can become self perpetuating. Tracheal collapse may occur alone or in association with another airway disorder (most often chronic bronchitis).
A chronic “honking” cough can be an indication of this condition. In some cases the cough can become so severe that the animal behaves as though there is something caught in its throat. Other indications of this disorder include; breathing difficulty, tiring easily and exercise intolerance.
Mild cases often respond well to cough suppressants and stress reduction (reduce intense exercise and excitement). These dogs can live long and healthy lives. In more advanced cases surgical correction may be necessary. In cases of combination airway disorders, treatment of the contributing disorders may be necessary before treating the tracheal collapse.
The palate (roof of the mouth) is a wall, partitioning the nasal and oral cavities. This partition is made up of two parts : the hard palate and the soft palate. The hard palate forms the front portion of this partition and is made up of two bony plates (one on each side) that are normally fused together at their midline juncture. This fusion normally takes place during fetal development. The soft palate forms the rear portion of the palate wall. Both palates are covered with a mucous membrane.
The most common type of cleft palate results when the two bony palate plates fail to fuse. The lack of bone fusion leaves a hole or slit in the roof of the mouth. The cleft (hole) drastically impacts nursing ; suction is affected, a portion of the food that the puppy is able to draw is passed into the nasal cavity, the nasal cavity is highly prone to infection, and the puppy will literally wear itself out trying to satisfy it’s appetite. The cleft is present at birth and can usually be detected by examining the roof of the mouth. Occasionally milk can be observed running from a puppy’s nose while it is nursing.
The only treatment for a cleft palate is to surgically close the opening. In cases of severe clefts the affected pup is usually euthanised. Most cleft palates are assumed to be genetic unless other causative factors are found.
Megaesophagus is a condition in which the esophagus is enlarged or dilated. The results of this condition are : regurgitation, loss of overall condition and frequently leads to aspiration pneumonia. Megaesophagus interferes with effective peristalsis thereby preventing food from passing down into the stomach. In practical fact, it is a really unpleasant condition for even the most tolerant of pet owners to put up with. The dog frequently vomits almost immediately after eating, exercising, or doing anything more strenuous than getting off the couch. After having purchased and lived with one dog with this condition, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, let alone their dog.
Megaesophagus can be congenital or acquired. Some of the causes of acquired megaesophagus are : esophageal foreign bodies, esophageal tumors, strictures, neurological disorders, autoimmune diseases and heavy metal poisoning. Treatment for acquired megaesophagus disorders are dependent upon the causative factors.
In the case of congenital megaesophagus in puppies, the symptoms generally manifest shortly after the puppies begin to eat solid foods. Affected pups will frequently begin to eat eagerly, then suddenly back away from the food dish, regurgitate a small amount of food, which they will eat again. By repeatedly eating the food, the meal is liquefied, thereby making it possible to be passed into the stomach. Portions of the food can be aspirated into the lungs, making the puppy prone to aspiration pneumonia.
Treatment for congenital megaesophagus in puppies is primarily directed toward maintaining and improving the nutritional status of the pup. Food and water are usually given by raising the bowls up off of the floor (raising the bowls helps facilitate swallowing). Many owners have reported that feeding the pups a semi liquid or gruel mixture has shown good results. Other pups seem to respond best to being fed solids. Treatment has to be based upon which method the individual pup will respond to best. The first few weeks are the most critical. Pups that survive this critical time appear to spontaneously improve. Any dog with congenital megaesophagus should be spay or neutered regardless of how well it “outgrows” its conditions.
New studies, including those done by Dr. Jean Dodds, have shown a correlation between Megaesophagus and Hypothyroidism. More on that in Part Five.
Our personal opinion is that dogs which have received surgery or treatment for elongated soft palate, cleft palate, stenotic nares, ME or tracheal collapse should not be bred from, no matter how many other redeeming qualities they may have as examples of the breed. There are no ‘screening’ tests for healthy breathing in French Bulldogs, other than the common sense and responsible attitude of the breeder. The amount of suffering and unpleasantness which these conditions can cause cannot be over emphasized. In the scope of French Bulldog health conditions, while all are serious, this is the one which causes the most alarm in me personally. Breathing impairments are one of the number one causes of death (including death by intentional Euthanasia) in French Bulldogs.
Finally, that cute little button nose on your Frenchie needs loving care from time to time, even if their breathing is perfect. The skin can dry out and crack, and scales of dry scabby looking tissue can develop on it. The simple application of a Vitamin E capsule split open and liberally applied will keep your dog’s nose looking healthy, shiny and kissable.