What You Must Know About Flat-Faced Cats (Brachycephalic Cats)

Flat-faced Scottish Fold cat.
Flat-faced Scottish Fold cat. Photography ©Getty Images.

As a doctor in a cats-only practice, I love seeing Persian, Himalayan and Burmese cats. Their sweet personalities and calm temperaments make them a dream. Their medical issues, however, make them more of a nightmare. These breeds are known as brachycephalic breeds. Their look is unmistakable: short muzzles, flat faces and big, bulging eyes. In the last several years, some flat-faced cats, or brachycephalic cats, have been bred with flatter and flatter faces, perhaps in a misguided attempt to create the next “internet celebrity” cat. Sadly, this has resulted in severely brachycephalic cats with markedly malformed heads and a variety of medical issues.

Eye issues in flat-faced cats

A flat-faced Persian cat.
Persians are among the flat-faced cat breeds. Photography ©Getty Images.

Brachycephalic cats have large, protruding eyes. When they blink, their eyelids often do not close completely, resulting in increased exposure of the cornea. These cats may develop keratitis (corneal inflammation), and it may predispose Persians to a condition called corneal sequestrum, in which black pigment develops on the cornea. It’s an uncomfortable condition that requires surgical intervention.

Persistent eye discharge is also frequently seen in brachycephalic cats. Normally, the tear ducts drain the tears from the eyes into the nasal cavity. In flat-faced cats, the path of the tear ducts is abnormal due to the changes in the shape of the skull, making tears unable to drain properly. Persistent tear staining and an increased incidence of eye infection is the result.

Breathing bothers for smushed-face cats

Himalayans are a flat-faced cat breed.
Himalayans have flat, or brachycephalic, faces. Photography © M Osama.

The most significant concern is a condition called brachycephalic airway syndrome, a condition commonly found in flat-faced cat breeds. Affected cats have difficulty breathing, mainly due to stenotic nares, the medical term for extremely narrow nostrils. In addition to tiny, little nostrils, they often have very narrow nasal passages and a longer-than-normal soft palate. Because these cats are born this way, they usually learn to adapt to a life of respiratory hardship, but many of these cats are obviously uncomfortable. If a respiratory infection occurs, the smallest bit of nasal discharge is enough to completely occlude their tiny nostrils, forcing these cats to breathe through their mouths. This does not come naturally to cats, and affected cats clearly are miserable.

A study of pets and air travel revealed that while incidences of pet loss, death, illness or injury aboard flights in the U.S. are very low, brachycephalic dogs are at significantly higher risk for death compared with other breeds. There is no data for brachycephalic cats; however, the similarities in facial conformation between brachycephalic dogs and cats gives one pause.

Other problems for flat-faced cats

Flat-faced British Shorthair.
Flat-faced cats, like the British Shorthair, face dental issues, too. Photography ©YAY Media AS.

The malformation of the head in brachycephalic cats can affect the jaw, causing the teeth and jaw to be misaligned. These cats often cannot bite and chew properly, leading to dental problems and difficulty eating. Severely brachycephalic cats often have deep, excessive skin folds on their faces. The depth of these folds prevents adequate cleaning by the cat, which can lead to bacterial and/or fungal skin infections.

Severe facial dermatitis can develop, especially in Persian cats. This condition, often referred to as “dirty face syndrome,” requires diligent grooming, cleaning and antibiotics. Extreme cases may require surgical correction of the skin folds.

A vet’s thoughts on brachycephalic cats

Flat-faced Burmese cat.
Burmese are among the flat-faced cat breeds. Photography ©Alamy Stock Photo.

As a veterinarian who has dealt with the harmful consequences of excessive brachycephalic conformation, I feel we need to be more vigilant when breeding brachycephalics and provide extra care when bringing them into our homes.

I’m not the only one with concerns. In Switzerland, the revised animal protection law strengthened regulations against intentional breeding to produce characteristics that compromise the health and well-being of a pet. Two breeders of brachycephalic cats were prosecuted in Switzerland under this law.

Dr. Arnold Plotnick is the founder of Manhattan Cat Specialists, a feline-exclusive veterinary practice on Manhattan’s upper west side. He is also an author of The Original Cat Fancy Bible. Dr. Plotnick is a frequent contributor to feline publications and websites, including his own blog, Cat Man Do. He lives in New York City with his cats, Mittens and Glitter.

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7 thoughts on “What You Must Know About Flat-Faced Cats (Brachycephalic Cats)”

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  4. Amber Ashia McCoy

    I really feel that catster is doing a diservice by giving people a platform to spread misinformation. Doll faced is a kind thing to call an inferior cat that is not show quality. – a stupid breeder!

  5. Pingback: Cat Eye Discharge — What’s Regular and What’s Not – Cute funny cat kitten pictures videos

  6. And I would like to add that the traditional Persian does not look angry or grumpy, they have a beautiful open face. I am still amazed at how beautiful Cosmo, my 13-year-old red tabby Persian is. He has such a sweet face, he actually looks rather like a large kitten. He loves to cuddle, too.

  7. I have owned three Persians, all of the “doll-face” type which is what Persians used to generally look like before those STUPID breeders started trying to get the totally “smushed face” look.

    NONE of my Persians had ANY problems with eye or nasal issues. I would suggest to anyone considering a Persian to make sure they are of the “doll face” or “traditional” type. This should go without saying but buy from a reputable breeder.

    And, if you are into rescues, just Google Persian rescue or Himalayan rescue. You will be AMAZED at how many of these cats are given up once they are adults because the owners can’t be bothered to deal with the hair or the eye and nose issues.

    I think Persian/Himalayan breeders who breed for the very short face should be chastised for such practices. My vet told me that there have been cases in show cats where the nose was deliberately broken to create an even more “smushed” look.

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