By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Brachycephalic, or flat-faced, cats have been increasing in popularity as big-name celebrities and Internet videos starring “grumpy cats” have brought them into the limelight. Persians and British and exotic shorthair cats are examples of flat-faced breeds that are being increasingly bred to have “pushed-in” faces. Some find their smashed-nose appearance, often with a downturned mouth and prominent eyes, to be charming, but there are many associated health problems.
Speaking with The Telegraph, Claire Bessant, chief executive of International Cat Care, a feline welfare charity, expressed dismay over purposely breeding cats to have flat faces, which compromises their physical health:1
“It is very depressing to see the life that has been deliberately dealt to some breeds of cats because of a human desire to develop a certain look … One of the best and most beautifully naturally designed animals — the cat — would not normally have any of these problems; we have created them through selective breeding.
We should not be encouraging people to breed these cats by calling them 'cute,' by being amused at their facial characteristics, or by the fact that they snore. We should never deliberately breed cats for any feature or characteristic that impairs their welfare.”
Flat-Faced Felines Face Increased Respiratory Problems
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland measured the muzzle ratio and nose position ratio of hundreds of cats, using photos sent in by their owners. Their facial features along with other lifestyle factors, physical characteristics and health issues were analyzed to determine whether brachycephaly is associated with respiratory abnormalities in cats.
Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS), a chronic respiratory condition, has previously been documented in flat-faced dog breeds, such as pugs and bulldogs.
“In dogs, BOAS has been identified as having the potential to reduce an animal’s quality of life and lifespan,” the researchers noted,2 and they wanted to find out if a similar finding was true in cats. After calculating a “composite respiratory score” for each cat, based on their owner’s assessment of respiratory noise while their cat was sleeping along with difficulty breathing following activity, they found that cats with flatter faces were more likely to respiratory problems. According to the researchers:3
“This study improves current knowledge concerning cats with breeding-related alterations in skull confirmation and indicates that brachycephalism may have negative respiratory implications for cat health and welfare, as has been previously shown in dogs.
… Attention should be paid to breed standards which promote increased brachycephalia in cats which has the potential to negatively impact upon their welfare, and potential buyers of brachycephalic cat breeds should be made aware of the risks of their conformation.”
Further, the cats with the most respiratory troubles were also more likely to have tear staining and live a sedentary lifestyle, the former of which makes sense since brachycephaly is also associated with obstructions to the nasolacrimal system, and, as the researchers noted, “the presence of tear staining is induced by the obstruction of nasolacrimal system, blocking draining and causing tears to flow down the face.”
As for the sedentary lifestyle, the researchers reasoned that, in some cases, due to their respiratory issues these cats may be “incapable of high activity levels.”4
Additional Health Problems Facing Brachycephalic Breeds
Dogs have been studied more often than cats when it comes to brachycephalic breeds, however both species are likely to suffer from similar health problems, which may be not only respiratory in nature but also affect the eyes, mouth and skin. Because of the way their heads are shaped, their eyes often don't fit properly in their heads.
Their eye sockets are shallow, which makes their eyes more pronounced and also vulnerable to popping out of their socket (an injury that requires emergency surgery, but be sure to go to a knowledgeable veterinarian, as brachycephalic animals are at high risk when put under anesthesia). In some brachycephalic animals, eyelids may not completely close, which can lead to chronic cornea problems, including irritation, dry eye and damage.
Entropion, or curling in of the eyelids, can cause eyelashes to rub against the cornea, creating tremendous, chronic irritation, and some brachycephalic animals also have constant wetness around their eyes. These breeds may also have trouble with their teeth, which are crowded into an irregularly shaped jaw, as well as skin infections.
Generally speaking, the higher the grade of brachycephaly (i.e., the flatter or more “smashed” your cat’s face), the worse the associated health problems will be, which is why breeding extreme forms of these animals is unethical.
Writing in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, researchers found that Persian cats with high grades of brachycephaly (peke-face Persians) had malformations of their skull and facial bones, as well as dental malformations, and concluded, “As these dysmorphologies can affect animal welfare, the selection for extreme forms of brachycephaly in Persian cats should be reconsidered.”5
Another study, published in the German journal Pneumologie, described brachycephaly in dogs and cats as a “human-induced obstruction of the upper airways,” noting, “Selective breeding for exaggerated features caused in many brachycephalic dog and cat breeds virtually a loss of the nose, with serious anatomical and functional consequences.”6
Caring for Your Brachycephalic Cat
In the video above I describe some of the special needs of brachycephalic breeds. Because of their unique anatomy, they’re at increased risk for heat stroke so should not be exposed to extreme temperatures. You should also become familiar with your cat’s typical breathing or snoring sounds and take note of anything that sounds unusual. An increase in such noises, or any other noteworthy change, should be checked out by your veterinarian, as breathing issues can worsen over time.
If you notice your cat’s eyes appear to be partly open while she sleeps, they could be getting dried out, in which case additional lubrication, such as saline eye gel, will help prevent irritation and corneal ulcers from developing.
With proper care, a healthy, fresh species-appropriate diet and love, many bracycephalic cats live long and happy lives, but if you’re considering adopting one from a shelter, do be aware of the increased health risks that come along with them, and please don’t support breeders who are creating extreme forms of this condition.