Form or Function

Dr. Brianne Hagerty, Avery and Bjorn

I was born and raised with German Shepherds. When I first learned what a dog was, it was a loyal, protective, big eared, loving German Shepherd. My family has bred them for longer than I have existed and I grew up with litters of wiggling, tiny, fuzzy puppies in our laundry room every year. Mornings I would sit in my pyjamas, little black bear like Shepherd puppies piled on my lap and playing with my toes, as their bedding was changed.

German shepherds, like many breeds, have undergone a change in “desired” conformation, which has lead to their poor reputation for hip and elbow dysplasia, as well as behavioural issues that we try to avoid. The original working shepherd had a gently sloping back and square hips for power and agility. Over the past century this has slowly changed to exaggerate the sloping back and angulated hips that we often see today, causing a rise in joint related issues. Careful breeding for function and temperament has become crucial to maintain the breed’s original abilities.

Changing Focus:

For almost 4,000 years we have been breeding dogs for specific traits. Historically these selected traits were largely for function and not just looks. Important jobs, such as hunting, guarding, and other forms of work were expected of our canine companions. However, modern breeds and their vast number of behavioural and physical problems have only surfaced over the past two centuries. Suddenly dog shows and breeding for conformation based breed standards became in vogue. Spurred by “sire syndrome”, breeders strive to pass on the looks of a “champion” male dog; suddenly, his genes, healthy or not, become valuable and sought after.

Ignored was the focus on the Corgi’s ability to heard sheep, geese and cattle, lost was the perfect shape and athletic skill of a Dachshund to roust out badgers and forgotten was the fact that the Great Dane was made to hunt wild boar.

Probably the most largely recognized change in breed standard and the linked health issues, are those seen in the brachycephalic breed dogs. In the year 1850 a bulldog looked a great deal like today’s pit bull terrier. Athletic, sturdy creatures with a well defined more elongated muzzle. Today the simple act of breeding and birthing the modern bulldog would not be physically possible without human intervention and help; Artificial insemination and birthing of puppies via caesarean section has become common practice to continue the survival of the breed.

What does brachycephalic mean?

The word “Brachy” means shortened and the word “cephalic” means head. We are familiar with many of these “short head” breeds, including pugs and bulldogs. Our canine companions are not the only species, which has their squishy-faced versions; Feline counterparts include the Persian, British shorthair and the Scottish fold. Some rabbit breeds also have the same skull shape and associated health issues.


No, we are not referring to the cheap pink feather boa from last Halloween, nor the boa constrictor ready to squeeze the life out of you. Instead BOAS stands for Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome. This is the medical term for the group of health issues associated with exaggerated shortening of the brachycephalic breeds skull and snout.

The abnormalities seen with this syndrome include; Stenotic nares (small, narrow nostrils which prevent good airflow, an enlarged soft palate (an elongation of the soft part of the roof of the mouth, which tends to block the entrance into trachea at the back of the throat), a hypoplastic trachea (or underdeveloped windpipe) and everted laryngeal saccules (small pouches of soft tissue located inside the larynx or voice box, which can block airflow).

All of these abnormalities lead to difficulty getting enough oxygen into their lungs and bodies. Image breathing through a narrow, easily collapsible straw with a chunk of strawberry stuck to the end, which keeps flopping over. Exercise, heat and even sleeping can exacerbate the problems. Additionally, the skull conformation of these breeds can lead to eye and skin problems as well.

Function over Form:

Not all of our wrinkled, loveable, short nosed companions suffer from brachycephalic-related problems. Selection for functional anatomy and healthy genetics can produce healthy and beautiful companions. However, thought and a focus on temperament and function must prevail.

The Netherlands is one of the first countries to introduce a fitness test for brachycephalic dogs, as well as new guidelines to help determine form and function. The Minister of Agriculture has submitted new rules to parliament, which outline tests to be administered by veterinarians. These would include asking the potential breeding dog to walk 1km at a brisk pace followed by measurements of heart rate, respiratory rate and recovery rate. Additionally, new criteria are being introduced which suggest guidelines for the shape of the dogs skull, length of its nose, size of the nostrils and placement of the eyes. These guidelines stem from a recently published study out of Utrecht University detailing the health concerns (such as breathing difficulty, risk of heat stroke and eye issues) which brachiocephalic dogs are predisposed to.

Responsible and careful selection and breeding can allow us to continue to appreciate the squishy faced, adoring eyed, loving brachycephalic breeds.

Regardless of the breed of dog or cat, this shift in focus to healthy functional animals which we continue to breed should have long lasting and positive effects on our beloved pets.

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