Dogs that are brachycephalic, also known as pug nosed or short muzzled, are particularly prone to several different respiratory problems due to the shape of their heads. The most commonly affected breeds include the Shih Tzu, Boston Terrier, Pug, Pekingese, Bulldog, and Boxer. These breeds have problems with collapsed tracheas, heatstroke, and a congenital problem known as elongated soft palate.
The soft palate is a flap of tissue that is located at the upper back part of the throat. A normal functioning and positioned soft palate acts like a flap or block to prevent food or liquid that the dog is swallowing from accidentally entering the air passage, also known as the nasopharnyx. The soft palate touches the epiglottis, which in turn is attached to the base of the tongue in dogs with a normal formation.
In pug nosed or brachychalic breeds, the lower jaw is normally developed but the upper jaw is recessed, giving the well-known pug nosed appearance. This recession of the upper jaw into the skull can cause the soft palate to more than just touch the epiglottis, rather it will actually be laying on the epiglottis, resulting in problems when the dog tries to eat, breath, or swallow. It is not usually possible to see this condition in its early stages unless the dog is anesthetized, at which time the vet can check. Many vets routinely check brachycephalic dogs during spaying and neutering for elongated soft palates.
Typically this condition is not life threatening, but the dog may become stressed with breathing problems during exercise. Owners of pug nosed breeds should watch for signs of snoring, wheezing, snorting, and coughing when the dog is running. As the soft palate becomes more swollen and irritated, breathing even during relaxation and even when sleeping can become more problematic. In addition, the dog may experience greater problems in eating and drinking and may start to spit out food or even throw up food or water while he or she is eating or drinking because the palate is obstructing both the throat and the air passage.
As this irritation increases and the dog continues to struggle trying to breathe, eat, and drink the muscles and ligaments that control and hold the larynx begin to stretch. As these muscles stretch the larynx begins to collapse in on itself, eventually leading to complete obstruction of the airway. This condition can be life threatening as the more the dog panics and tries to breathe; the more pressure will be put on the larynx, further hastening the collapse.
The elongated soft palate does not always become a serious condition and can be corrected with a surgical procedure that removes the excess tissue on the palate. Since this condition is hereditary it is very important for any dog that has been diagnosed or shows signs of elongated soft palate be spayed or neutered and not used in breeding programs. Reputable breeders have worked diligently to control their breeding stock so this condition is far less common today than it was several years ago.