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Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome in Cats

Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome is the medical term given to various upper airway problems found in short-nosed, flat-faced cats breeds. A brachycephalic (having a short, broad head) breed may experience partial obstruction of the upper airway due to physical characteristics such as narrowed nostrils, an overly long soft palate, or collapse of the voice box (larynx). Breathing difficulties may also occur because of an abnormally small trachea, another characteristic common to brachycephalic breeds. Himalayans, Exotic Shorthairs, and Persians are classified as brachycephalic.


Symptoms of an obstructed upper airway may include snoring, tachypnea, noisy breathing when inhaling, frequent panting, difficulty eating or swallowing, coughing and gagging, inability to perform physical activity, especially in warm, humid weather, and occasionally physical collapse. A physical examination may reveal further indications, such as stenotic nareshyperthermia, and increased respiratory effort evident by open-mouth breathing and panting.


Brachycephalic airway syndrome stems from a cat’s unique head shape, which is inherited naturally at birth. Cats with this condition are bred for their broad faced, short-nosed appearance, but in some cases, the features can be extreme, or stunted. Most cats that are affected adversely are diagnosed as young adults, generally by age three. The most commonly reported cause for the syndrome in cats is a defect of the nasal passages, referred to as stenotic nares, or narrowed nasal passages. Other physical defects that can compound the condition are an elongated soft palate, and enlarged tonsils.

Factors that may increase the risk and further complicate the condition include obesity, allergies, over-excitement, and exercise. Any of these may cause rapid breathing that the obstructed airway can not manage. These problems worsen in warm, humid weather, which also leads to excessive panting.


If brachycephalic airway syndrome is suspected, two primary diagnostic tests that will be used are a laryngoscopy (or pharyngoscopy), and a tracheoscopy, in which a small fiber-optic scope is inserted through the mouth to examine the larynx/pharynxand trachea. This can reveal characteristics such as an overlong palate, or a collapsed trachea (commonly known as the wind pipe) or larynx.

Other possible findings include the presence of a foreign object that is obstructing the airway, an infection in the upper respiratory system, or an allergic reaction that has caused the airway to swell.