Flat faced cats are widely admired for their squashed features. Their muzzle is short, nostrils are narrowed and the bridge of their nose often has a raised ridge of skin above it. Flat faced cat breeds include the popular Persians, Scottish Folds and Exotic Shorthair. Flat faced cat breeds are famous for their grumpy cat face, sad eyes and appealingly baby-like expressions. But sadly flat faced cats have big healthy problems.
The condition of the shortened skull which causes their distinctive look is called Brachycephaly. Symptoms of the facial features this causes also include difficulty breathing, respiratory infections, dental disorders and eye problems. Flat faced cats also have trouble giving birth, increased risks under anesthetic, sleep disorders and even temperature control issues.
Flat Faced Cat Breeds
Veterinary and scientific research professionals have identified the Persian,Exotic Shorthair and Himalayan cat breeds as brachycephalic. But the problem also potentially affects the Scottish Fold, Burmese and British Shorthair to a lesser or greater degree. And some believe the Selkirk Rex is being pushed in the same direction.
What Is Brachycephaly?
Brachycephaly is the scientific term for flat faces. It means ‘short skull’. The skulls of brachycephalic animals grow to a normal width. But the distance from the back of their head to the tip of their nose is stunted.
In fact brachycephaly in dogs is quite well known these days. There is a large and expanding archive of research about them. As well as increasing public awareness.
Brachycephalic cats suffer in the same ways. But they haven’t been studied as extensively yet. So people are generally less likely to realise they have the same problems.
Health Problems Of Flat Faced Cats
The health problems of flat faced cats can be broadly categorised as:
1. Breathing Problems In Flat Faced Cats
Breathing trouble experienced by flat faced cats can range from quite minor to very serious indeed.
The extent of their breathing problems is directly related to the extent of their brachycephaly.
The shorter their skull, the worse their breathing.
The reason for this are:
i. Too much tissue
Although a brachycephalic cat’s skull is shorter than it should be, all the tissues that usually fit inside a cat’s mouth remain regular cat size.
And there just isn’t room for them.
ii. Closed nostrils
A common result of brachycephaly is that the facial features become smooshed together and bunched up.
This bunching up pushes the opening of the nostril. So the space for air to enter becomes narrow and constricted.
The veterinary term for this is stenotic nares.
iii. Elongation of the soft palate
The soft palate is the group of muscles at the back of the roof of the mouth. Their function is to close off the airway when cats swallow.
In flat faced cats, the soft palate – whilst normal sized – can be too long for the abnormally short space inside their skull.
Instead of closing of the airway appropriately, the soft palate permanently blocks it, and stops the free flow of air.
There is even one recorded case of an elongated palate causing fluid to build up in the lungs of a young Persian cat.
The Consequences Of Airway Obstruction In Flat Faced Cats
These three factors, combined with others, can have dangerous consequences for cats’ health.
Structures called turbinates, which should fit above their nose, end up protruding into the cavity at the back of the mouth. This restricts airflow and is linked to respiratory tract infections.
Brachycephalic airway syndrome is also linked to laryngeal collapse, which is potentially fatal.
Constricted airways also make it harder for a vet to intubate your cat quickly and safely should they need surgery. But we’ll come to other complications of surgery in a moment.
Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome
Brachycephalic airway syndrome is the collective name for all of the breathing problems above, when a flat face causes an animal’s airways to be obstructed.
Research into brachycephalic airway syndrome in cats is not comprehensive.
But fortunately there is some. And we can infer a little more from work with dogs.
Simply put, they have a lot of breathing problems.
Cats with brachycephalic airway syndrome are at increased risk of:
- sleep apnea
- upper respiratory tract infections
- and invasive fungal lung infections.
Treating Breathing Problems In Flat Faced Cat Breeds
Surgeries to remove excess tissue, reduce an elongated palate, and widen stenotic nares are all used to improve breathing of cats badly affected by brachycephalic airway syndrome.
Since stenotic nares (narrow nostrils) are a very common feature of flat faced cats, and the procedure to widen them is the least invasive, it is one of the most commonly performed.
During surgery, a vet removes small wedges of the dorsolateral cartilage which supports the outside edge of the nostril. This creates more space for airflow.
Some adult flat faced cats that appear to have good nostrils may owe them to surgery at an earlier point in their life.
It’s important to know this if you are considering buying a flat faced kitten. Since you are likely to end up footing the same vet bill further down the line.
Never buy a kitten from a parent that has needed surgery in order to breathe freely. And always get your cat checked by a qualified vet if they are breathing heavily without any obvious reason.
2. Eye Problems of Flat Faced Cats
But the head shape of these cats affects more than just breathing.
They also suffer well documented problems with their eyes.
Brachycephalic cats’ eyes protrude further than usual from their socket. This is due to lack of space in their shortened skulls.
Eyes are not designed to sit outside their sockets, where they are constantly irritated by contact with fur, dust and debris.
Many brachycephalic cats also have excessive folds of skin around their faces, which repeatedly rub against their eyes.
And with no muzzle in the way to prevent it, flat faced cats are prone to bumping their eyes against things too. Especially the contents of their food bowl.
This puts flat faced cats at a high risk of corneal damage.
Corneal Damage In Flat Faced Cats
The cornea is the transparent layer at the front of the eye.
Since it protrudes out of the socket, the corneas of flat faced cats are more prone to damage.
The scratches and ulcers which result are painful. Plus, over time they can progressively impair a cat’s vision.
Worse still, researchers have found that the corneas of flat face cats are less sensitive than those of cats with standard skull shapes.
This is due to significantly lower nerve fiber density in their corneas.
So, flat faced cats are slower to show signs of being troubled by damage to their cornea.
Other Eye Problems
In the meantime, the problem becomes harder to treat. And the risk to their eyesight increases.
All in all, it’s no fun being a flat faced cat’s eyes.
3. Dental Problems of Flat Faced Cats
Flat faced cats are prone to dental problems.
The shape of their skull is directly related to the amount of issues they will have in their lifetime.
There are a few reasons for this.
One is because the shortening of the jaw results in less space in the mouth.
Brachycephalic cats don’t generally have fewer teeth. So they have to fit the same size and number into a smaller mouth.
This of course results in overcrowding and rotated or overlapped teeth.
Some do appear to have fewer teeth, but only because they are impacted into their gums.
This Causes Further Issues
The dental problems experienced by flat faced cats often cause issues with chewing and therefore eating their food.
So much so that you can even buy specialist cat food for Persians and other brachcephalic breeds, that is easier for them to eat.
But wait, there’s more…
Not only is there less space inside the mouths of flat face cats, but the jaws don’t line up like they would naturally.
The lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw. Which is known as a mandibular bite.
Oral tumors – that’s mouth cancer to you and me – can also commonly arise around the carnassial and canine teeth of brachycephalic breeds.
The differences in the facial structure have lots of implications when trying to fix these dental problems too.
The vet may have practical difficulties anesthetizing your cat effectively.
For example, the infraorbital canal – a small channel in the skull housing an important bundle of nerves – is very short in flat faced cats.
This makes administering an injection of anesthetic to this area incredibly difficult. And there is an increased risk of ‘overshooting’ with the needle.
How Dental Problems Affect Nasal Drainage
Another problem is the link between the tooth displacement of flat faced cats and their nasal drainage systems.
An important part of your cat’s anatomy is their nasal drainage system and lacrimal system.
These systems are linked, and together they control the way in which your kitty’s tears go from their eyes, through the face and nose, and eventually drain away down the throat.
They are responsible for keeping the eyes healthy and functional.
In a healthy cat, fluid produced naturally in the eyes drains away through a little channel called the tear duct.
Tear ducts are often blocked or distorted in flat faced cats. This causes the fluid to spill out onto their face.
Disruption to Natural Routes
The facial bones and teeth are also positioned incorrectly, which changes the natural route of the nasal drainage system.
So fluid which does drain into the tear duct moves slugglishly to the back of the throat, or back up to the tear duct again.
This constant leakage has leads to tear stains, irritated skin, and dermatitis.
The flatter the face, the worse the effects can be.
In a particularly extreme case, one brachycephalic cat’s recurrent dental problems led to endogenous endophthalmitis (a potentially blinding eye infection).
Avoiding These Problems
We can’t fix affected cats.
All we can do is avoid breeding from such cats and perpetuating these problems.
That’s why veterinarians who have studied the effect recommend breeding from cats with longer facial bones.
The symptoms of damaged tear ducts are clear to see.
Excessively watering eyes are also common in brachycephalic cats. And it’s almost considered normal to see Persians with constantly tear stained faces.
4. Birthing Difficulties In Flat Faced Cats
Next we come to specific problems flat faced cats have giving birth.
Difficulties giving birth are known in the veterinary world as dystocia.
Brachycephalic cats are more likely to experience dystocia than cats with a healthy skull shape.
One study of 155 cases of feline dystocia showed that the incidence was higher in Persians than any other breed.
This is because the unnatural shape of their skulls makes for a less easy exit from the mother cat or ‘queen’.
Should Flat Faced Cats Be Banned?
With all these problems stacked against them, it’s easy to wonder what quality of life is left for flat faced cat breeds at all.
Certainly, several vets have suggested banning the breeding of extreme brachycephalic animals entirely.
Nonetheless, they remain very popular. Still people search for “flat faced white cats” and “what kind of cat has a pushed in face?” every day.
So, with so many healthy and happy cat breeds out there, why do people still want to make more flat faced cats?
Why People Still Choose Cats With Flat Faces
One reason put forward by scientists is that the face of a brachycephalic animal looks more human than that of a dog or cat with a muzzle.
And humans are naturally drawn to pets that look more like them.
Another common trend among owners of flat faced cats, compared to other owners of other breeds, is that they did less research before choosing their pet.
Having learned the health problems of flat faced cats the hard way, they are also less likely to recommend their cat’s breed to others.
In short, they make a naive and expensive mistake.
Perhaps knowing why flat faced cats still get bought will help us to resist them?
What Next For Flat Faced Cat Breeds?
The appeal of many flat faced cat breed is one that people find hard to resist. Especially the flat faced Persian cat.
But their health problems from facial shape aren’t even the only concern for put-upon Persians.
Almost two thirds of Persian cats are currently under veterinary care for at least one disorder.
Coat disorders, overgrown nails, kidney disease and cancer commonly sit alongside the side effects of having a brachycephalic skull.
It’s impossible to think of a kind way to bring more kittens with this future into the world.
So if you are desperate for one of these flat faced cats, the best way to get one is to go to a rescue.
But be aware, they will likely still have medical issues that you will have to deal with.
This is not a breed for anyone with tight finances or reluctance for veterinary visits!
Ethical Concerns Around Flat Faced Cats
If you already own a flat faced cat then you may be concerned by what you’ve just read. If you are concerned for their health, arrange a check up with the vet. But the most important message we are trying to send is that it’s time to stop buying flat faced kittens.
Breeding cats and dogs with flat faces has been widely reported as having a serious affect on animal health and welfare.
In Germany there is even a word for the extreme breeding of pets with exaggerated features – qualzucht. Directly translated, it means ‘torture breeding’. This may seem extreme, but in some cases I can’t think of a more accurate word.