Pug's face

Like many other pet lovers, I am captivated by the endearing faces and loving, playful personalities of Pugs, Pekingese, Bulldogs and others of what we veterinarians call “brachycephalic” breeds of dogs (and a couple of cat breeds, too, most notably the Persian). In fact, my daughter, Vetstreet dog trainer Mikkel Becker, has two Pugs, and my wife and I love them so much we call them our “grandpugs.”

But as a veterinarian, I am sadly too aware of the many health problems these breeds have, and if you own one of these dogs — or hope to — you need to be aware as well.

My Vetstreet colleagues and I have written before about brachycephalic syndrome, the tendency of these poorly designed (but undeniably cute) dogs to have such severe breathing difficulties that they may need surgery to live a somewhat normal life — or even just to live at all. The same pushed-in faces that make breathing a challenge also put these pets at high risk for serious eye injuries. Many times these dogs suffer with chronic, painful eye problems that their owners never really notice, or assume are normal for the breed.

When you have a short-nosed pet, you need to be sure you’re doing all you can to help him not only survive but also thrive. The place to start is with a full veterinary checkup to review and address the special needs of these health-challenged pups.

No Room for Normal Eyes

Dogs with extremely flat faces don’t have much room for normal eye sockets: Their eyeballs are so shallowly placed that they actually protrude. The most alarming problem with this arrangement is that it’s not uncommon for an eyeball to pop out.

Even with immediate attention from a skilled veterinary surgeon, the eye may not be able to be secured in the socket again. While losing an eye isn’t life-threatening, it is a very scary thing for a pet lover (not to mention a pet) to experience. There are many, many less shocking health issues that are far more dangerous to life but few that will stir the emotion in the way seeing your pet with a dangling eyeball will.

If you have one of these breeds, you cannot guarantee that your dog’s eyes will stay in place, but you can do your part to prevent this tragedy by never playing rough with your dog  — or allowing another person or dog to do so. You should also use a harness instead of a collar to walk your pet, since straining against a collar could build enough pressure to pop out a shallow eyeball. Your dog’s lifespan and quality of life will not be diminished if he ends up with an empty eye socket, but I know you’ll miss seeing that loving gaze from both eyes if it happens.

More Painful Problems

Losing an eyeball is likely the most dramatic of the structure-related eye problems in these dogs, but it’s by no means the only reason for worry. Because these dogs lead with their protruding eyes instead of their noses, the eyeballs are in danger of being scratched by vegetation or even upholstery. The result can be painful corneal ulcers that need prompt veterinary attention and a course of medication or even surgery to resolve.

That’s still not all. Because skin folds and tear ducts are also not like those in other dogs, these breeds can develop painful sores in their folds, and tears that don’t drain normally leave the area moist, inviting infection. Some dogs are not able to close their eyes fully and have chronic dry eyes that must be lubricated with eye drops and ointments, not only for comfort but to prevent abrasions and blindness.

Finally, some of these dogs have lashes that tip inward, scraping the eyeball. This is called entropion, and it typically must be corrected surgically to prevent a life of constant pain, infections and even blindness.

Brachycephalic breeds are the way they are because we made them so. Like many veterinarians, I am optimistic that calls for less extreme features in these breeds will make them less vulnerable to health problems caused by breeding trends. In the meantime, those of us who own and love these breeds will have to treat them like “hothouse flowers” to protect them from harm.

Your veterinarian will be happy to make sure your dog has no current eye problems and help you catch developing ones before they cause your dog a lifetime of pain. The sooner your dog gets to the veterinarian, the more comfortable and healthy he’ll be.