Help for Flat-Faced Cats with Airway Problems


Dr. Heidi Phillips, small animal surgeon and associate professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Hadley Gleason, veterinarian completing a residency in small animal surgery join us to discuss help for flat-faced cats and dog with airway problems.

Dr. Phillips last summer became the first U.S. veterinary surgeon to perform a new airway surgery on dogs with brachycephalic syndrome (“Brachycephalic” means “short-headed”; dog breeds include pugs, mastiffs, and bulldogs).

Now she and Dr. Gleason are investigating how brachycephalic syndrome appears in cat breeds with smooshed faces (Persians, Himalayans, etc.).

They will examine 32 cats using various imaging techniques and will perform airway surgery on the study cats that need it. The cats’ owners will complete questionnaires about the signs and behaviors of the cats before and after surgery. 

The short- and long-term goals of the study are to define what brachycephalic syndrome looks like in cats, identify any subtle signs that owners might not be picking up on, look for a way to relieve the problems suffered by these cats, and improve the breeding standards so future generations of cats won’t suffer these problems.

Interest in breeding and owning brachycephalic dogs has skyrocketed in recent years despite the known problems created for the dogs by breeding with a shortened facial structure or conformation. Examples include English and French bulldogs,Pugs, Shih Tzu’s, and others. 
There are also brachycephalic cats including Persian cats, Himalayan cats, and Exotic shorthair cats.
Less is know about the affects of brachycephalic structure on cats, which is one reason we want to conduct a study defining the signs and symptoms, as well as possible treatments, of brachycephalic syndrome in cats.
In dogs, we know that brachycephalic conformation can lead to such severe problems breathing that dogs may die, especially when exercised, stressed, restrained, or excited.  Other problems include abdominal hernias, gastroesophageal reflux similar to GERD in people, stomach and intestinal problems, ear and eye problems, pneumonia, heart tumors, heart disease, and severe lung disease.
Cats may show lethargy, disinterest in playing, lack of grooming, difficulty eating, nasal and eye discharge, vomiting, and other problems.
There are surgeries to help both dogs and cats, and the University of Illinois is the first institution in the United States to offer newer treatments for brachycephalic dogs that were recently pioneered by a colleague in Germany. These may be good options for dogs that have had and failed conventional surgery.
We are conducting two studies in dogs and cats and seeking funding for the cat study…one is to evaluate how the soft palate, or soft roof of the mouth is trimmed and sutured and the types of suture and suture pattern used in dogs.  The other is to perform CAT scans and heart exams and surgery to open the nostrils on cats that are brachycephalic. We are also asking owners to fill out a survey before and after surgery so we can try to learn how cats might show different signs than dogs that they are suffering from brachycephalic conformation. This is because cats are not small dogs…they show disease differently, and we feel passionately about making sure that brachycephalic cats get the diagnosis and treatment they deserve.

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