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Dogs, as we know, come in all shapes and sizes. Not so much cats, which is just as well because if there was a similar size variation in our domestic felines as in pet dogs, we could have 80kg cats roaming around. Pure breeds apart, our domestic pussy cats are an outbred population which has mixed up genes for generations. As a result, inherited disorders are rare in the moggy cat and with modern nutrition and veterinary care, our cats’ longevity is clearly significantly increasing.
The same cannot be said of our pure-breeds, neither dogs nor cats. In fact, certainly for the short-nosed (brachycephalic) and short-legged (chrondrodysplastic) the anatomical challenges facing these Pugs, Persians and Dachshunds is getting worse, not better. The Kennel Club, who set breed standards for dogs in the UK, are making some efforts to write healthier breed descriptions in the hope that these improvements will filter down the generations and eventually result in healthier dogs. It’s going to be a long process and their task is made much more difficult with the unregulated and uncontrolled breeding that has gone on in the past couple of years, driven by record-high puppy prices.
So what is it about Pugs and Persians that causes so many problems? It centres on the squashing of tongue, larynx, nasal chambers and eyes into too small a skull. The effect on breathing is obvious and this gets markedly worse with age and obesity, the former inevitable but the latter not so. Dogs and cats should not make a noise when they breathe, even ones with short noses! A scoring system has been developed by vets in Cambridge University for the disability suffered by brachycephalic dogs, giving grades from 1 (least severe) to 4 (in need of surgery to restore some quality of life). By only breeding from dogs with grades 1 and 2, it is hoped the direction of travel for Pugs and others is reversed and new-style no-snorting future generations result, which is in fact the old-style. In the meantime, as a profession we need to raise awareness of the disability some short-nosed dogs and cats suffer and offer ways of helping. Sometimes just widening the nose can make a difference, as it can with human snorers who use those nose-spreading devices (they really can work well!)
If the respiratory tract is one Achilles’ heel, the Pug eye is another. Too big to fit into its socket and exposed to the point of not even being covered by eyelids during a blink. This can be a massive problem as the tear film is not renewed efficiently in the centre of the eye, causing the cornea to dry out. The resulting ulcer can develop over a few hours and many go into melt-down, literally. The “melting ulcer” is not unique to Pugs but it really is an eye-threatening issue for any animal, especially those with a short nose. The process of “melting” is one of self-destruction, caused by enzymes that can destroy and perforate the cornea. Early and intensive medical treatment can prevent surgery but many eyes are lost or permanently impaired as a result. Next time your Pug is asleep (hopefully not snoring) have a close look at their eyelids and if you suspect even the slightest gap between them, it’s definitely time for eye lubricant. Even if you don’t see a gap, it will never do any harm to lubricate anyway. We can advise you on the best ones to use as waxier preparations are better at night and clear gels by day.
Just like a minor nose-job can be helpful for breathing, a little eye-lid shaping can work wonders for bulging eyes that refuse to close properly. All it involves is making the gap between the eyelids (the palpebral fissure) smaller so reducing the exposure of the cornea. Almost every Pug could benefit from this procedure but it almost never happens until an ulcer has developed and by that time, it’s often too late.
I know I’ve focused on one very small item, the Pug head, but it contains enough medical and surgical conditions to fill a text book. I should not overlook anatomical issues in other breeds, some of which can be fixed with surgery and some that perhaps, should not be. A defect that affects an animals’ quality of life or that causes a high risk of significant harm is arguably one that should be pro-actively addressed for the individual and be the target of genetic improvement in the long term. Other ‘defects’ are questionably due to fashion or tradition, such as long tails in working dogs of certain breeds. The tail docking debate continues within the veterinary profession as it does among breeders and owners and will probably never be resolved to everyone’s’ satisfaction. Is there a real difference in doing corrective eyelid surgery on a Pug to prevent an ulcer compared to shortening a working dog’s tail to prevent trauma on a shoot? Well, as a practice, we think there is, as Retrievers with long feathered tails are never docked and almost never suffer tail injuries as a result of retrieving! The consensus is now in favour of only shortening tails that have suffered trauma, to help prevent recurrence. Other forms of cosmetic surgery, such as ear-cropping, are illegal in the UK and rightfully so. Surgery is a powerful tool and must be used selectively, wisely….and very skilfully.