bulldogs. pugs. boston terrier French bulldogs. There’s a term for these well-loved puppies who appear to be missing a muzzle altogether and instead have their face squashed in through years of inbreeding. This term is ‘brachycephalic’, derived from the Greek for ‘short head’.
Whether you love these animals or think their very existence is inhumane (a subject of controversy), experts from both the canine world and the world of climatology agree on one thing: brachycephalic dogs will suffer a lot more , if climate change worsens. Science matters.
“The heat that emanates from cobbled streets and sidewalks is much more intense for dogs than it is for humans. Overheating can lead to collapse or even death.”
“Brachycephalic breeds are more prone to heat stress (hyperthermia) than non-brachycephalic breeds, particularly if they are overweight, and begin to overheat when temperatures exceed 91°F and 62% humidity,” says Dr. James A. Serpell, professor of ethics and animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, emailed Salon. “Overheating can lead to collapse or even death.”
dr Lisa Gunter, assistant professor of animal behavior and welfare at Virginia Tech School of Animal Sciences, explained the biology behind why these good-natured dogs are unfortunately prone to heat-related health issues.
“Unlike humans, who primarily stay cool in the heat by sweating, dogs pant,” Gunter explained via email. “It’s their special form of evaporative cooling.”
The key is to understand that brachycephalic dogs are bred to prioritize style over function in order to achieve the smooth face that their fans find aesthetically pleasing. If the nostrils need to be closer to the slits to accommodate the reduced facial area (e.g. no snout), this is often the case. When their windpipe is practically pinched in the back of their neck and their soft palate is elongated, that’s often just the way they’re bred. The end result is that these breeds suffer from more than the respiratory problems one would expect based on these structural issues. After all, they also need their faces for thermoregulation.
“These physical limitations make it difficult to breathe and make these breeds more prone to heat stroke than other dogs.” [even] in surprisingly mild weather and humidity,” said Gunter. “Trouble breathing can also reduce the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream, putting stress on the heart of brachycephalic dogs and making them more susceptible to heart problems.”
To predict what the future holds for brachycephalic dogs as climate change ravages the planet, Gunter turned to a city that’s already experienced the most extreme version of these conditions — Phoenix, Arizona, where she’s lived for nearly a decade.
“It’s important to plan when you’re going to walk your dog, where you’re going to walk (is it in the shade?) and how long the walks are, as is taking water with you, regardless of the length of the outing,” Gunter explained. “The heat that emanates from cobbled streets and sidewalks is much more intense for dogs than it is for humans. Dog owners often use booties to protect their dogs’ feet.”
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“They are very susceptible to heat stress and are therefore particularly threatened by climate change.”
She added, “Seemingly routine activities with brachycephalic dogs, like taking a potty lunch break in the backyard or a car ride, can be deadly in extreme heat if accidentally forgotten or locked in a room without air conditioning for just a few minutes.” . Overall, brachycephalic dog owners need to be much more aware of the heat and its devastating effects than typical dog owners.”
While Gunter merely described dogs experiencing hotter weather every day, which will become a “new anomaly,” Molly Sumridge – a PhD student in anthropozoology at the University of Exeter – told Salon via email that those breeds are to be expected as well is to come from the natural disasters that occur more frequently as a result of these events. Indeed, as drought and heatwave (or CDHW) frequency increases, heat-related weather extremes will also occur more frequently.
“Regardless of whether a region experiences higher overall temperatures or prolonged periods of hot weather, these dogs require access to air-conditioned spaces for their health and well-being,” Sumridge said. “Smoke from local and miles away wildfires can harm dogs of all breeds, but sensitive respiratory conditions are a heightened concern. Exposure to smoke in these breeds, where breathing is already impaired, can further increase the risk of complications, injury or illness.”
dr Michael E. Mann, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote an article on CDHW events in July, confirmed in an email to Salon that the canine experts’ assessment is correct: Brachycephalic dogs will suffer more than other dogs when the weather gets hotter.
“When you go out, take water and a bowl that your dog can easily drink from. Dehydration can make a heat-related situation worse.”
“It is my understanding that they are very susceptible to heat stress and therefore particularly threatened by climate change,” Mann wrote to Salon. He clearly lamented this fact, stating, “As a dog person, I would hate if they suffered or disappeared as a species altogether.” His advice to owners of brachycephalic dogs is, “Avoid letting them outside during particularly warm periods or to take them outside.”
The dog experts also had their own tips.
“It’s easy to keep your dog hydrated at home by making sure multiple water bowls are available and easily accessible throughout the house,” Gunter said. “When you go out, take water and a bowl that your dog can easily drink from. Dehydration can make a heat-related situation worse.”
The same goes for being overweight, Gunter added — and brachycephalic dogs are prone to weight issues.
“Regular, low-impact exercise can benefit your dog’s health and identify potential breathing issues that require veterinary attention,” Gunter said. “Dogs with moderate to severe breathing problems may need surgery to widen their nostrils and shorten their soft palate to allow for better breathing.”
Although Gunter didn’t say that brachycephalic dogs should no longer be bred, she did push for breeding them “with less extreme physical traits.” She also encouraged potential owners to find rescue dogs and research breeders to ensure they breed new dogs responsibly.
“As a consumer, it’s important to visit breeders who care about the physical well-being of their dogs, including how extreme physical traits negatively impact their dogs’ lives,” noted Gunter. “Good breeders should have their dogs screened for brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) and not breed animals that exhibit BOAS symptoms.”
For any owner whose dog is overheating, which can be identified by being disoriented, vomiting, or panting excessively, “cool them down as soon as possible before seeing a doctor,” Gunter said. “You can do this by dousing the dog with cold water and using a home fan or your car’s air conditioner to aid in the evaporative cooling process.” Only then should the dog be taken for medical rehabilitation.
Serpell also said brachycephalic dogs should be kept “lean,” adding that they shouldn’t be exercised during the warmest parts of the day (12pm to 6pm). However, unlike the other respondents, when asked if the solution might be to stop breeding brachycephalic dogs altogether, he was very blunt: “Yes!”