There is growing evidence to show that flat-faced or brachycephalic cats (picture 1), including most modern Persians or Exotic Shorthairs, are suffering from a number of health problems, leading to lifelong suffering as a direct result of being 'designed' to have a very flat face. This includes breathing problems, eye inflammation, skin infections and difficulty eating.
Amongst the latest evidence is a new scientific paper from the University of Edinburgh1 which concluded that flatter-faced cats were more likely to have breathing problems and that the breathing difficulties were also associated with increased tear staining and a more sedentary lifestyle. This comes on top of a recent successful prosecution in Switzerland under the Animal Protection Act, brought against two people who bred extreme bracycephalic cats. The revised animal protection law in Switzerland has strengthened regulations against intentional breeding to produce specific traits that compromise the health and wellbeing of an animal.
Brachycephalic animals have a shortened muzzle which constricts nasal passages and can result in respiratory and feeding problems. In addition, the tear fluid cannot drain normally from the eyes, explaining why such cats have permanent eye discharge and tear staining of the face (picture 2). The eye and facial abnormalities can result in chronic inflammation of the eyes and problems with skin infections in the folds around the flattened nose and across the face. Many affected cats also have difficulty in picking up food, as the jaw is also malformed, with teeth and jaw being misaligned.
In extreme cases, brachycephalic animals will have serious respiratory disease, causing significant suffering. Shamefully this is a man-made condition (picture 3). In pursuit of a look or fashion, breeders of some cats and dogs are selecting ever-shorter muzzles that inevitably result in serious welfare issues. Impaired breathing in these animals – part of a condition called brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) – can lead to health problems throughout animals’ lives and is often life limiting. This has been a common problem in many brachycephalic breeds of dog such as the pug and bulldog, but there have been increasing calls from veterinary and welfare organisations to recognise the suffering this causes in both dogs and cats.
The University of Edinburgh study, published in the journal PLOS ONE – saw hundreds of owners submitting photographs of their cats and completing a detailed health survey so that researchers could measure the facial features of the cats and assess breathing abnormalities (noisy breathing or difficulty breathing after exercise). The research confirmed that flatter-faced cats (of breeds such as the Persian or Exotic Shorthair), were more likely to have breathing problems and that the breathing difficulties were also associated with increased tear staining and a more sedentary lifestyle.
A previous paper, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery (JFMS)2 showed dramatically, and graphically, how the skulls of brachycephalic cats are actually deformed, especially the nose and jaw (picture 4). These shocking images demonstrate the altered conformation and are a salutary reminder of how severely the normal skull structure has been changed.
Unfortunately breeds of cat and dog with flat faces are becoming more and more popular, and extremes (of an already abnormal anatomy) can become instant internet celebrities. These breeds and individuals often have large or prominent eyes which are considered by some to be 'cute' because they are baby-like, and the flattened face often has an up-turned or down-turned mouth, which gives it a human or cartoon characteristic of smiling or scowling, such as Grumpy Cat.
Claire Bessant, Chief Executive of International Cat Care said, ’It is very depressing to see the life which has been deliberately dealt to some breeds of cats because of a human desire to develop a certain look. I urge cat lovers to speak out and help others to understand that this is not something we should be doing to cats, and not something we should be tolerating. One of the best and most beautifully naturally designed animals – the cat – would not normally have any of these problems; we have created them through selective breeding. We should not be encouraging people to breed these cats by calling them 'cute', by being amused at their facial characteristics, or by the fact that they snore – rather we need to understand that this is human intervention that is wholly detrimental to the welfare of the cats and is simply cruel. International Cat Care takes an ethical view of all cat breeds and our website (http://icatcare.org/advice/cat-breeds) outlines the problems that exist for some breeds, including very flat-faced cats in the Persians and Exotic breeds. Our stance is that we should never deliberately breed cats for any feature or characteristic that impairs their welfare.'
- Farnworth MJ, et al. Flat feline faces: is brachycephaly associated with respiratory abnormalities in the domestic cat (Felis catus)? PLoS One 2016; 11: e0161777. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0161777
- Schlueter C, Budras KD, Ludewig E, et al. Brachycephalic feline noses: CT and anatomical study of the relationship between head conformation and the nasolacrimal drainage system.J Feline Med Surg 2009; 11: 891–900. DOI: 10.1016/j.jfms.2009.09.010.
Picture 1 – The flattened muzzle of an extremely brachycephalic Persian cat (FreeImages.com/rodrigo reis)
Picture 2 – This Persian cat can be seen to have very narrow nostrils, which can lead to breathing difficulties. Discharge from the eye and tear staining can also be seen, another common feature of the breed (©Shutterstock.com/Piyato)
Picture 3 – Comparison of a normal cat muzzle (©iStock.com/Eric Isselée) and the extremely shortened muzzle of a brachycephalic cat (©iStock.com/Seregraff)
Picture 4 – The skull structure of brachycephalic cats, ranging from mild brachycephaly to severe. This illustrates how severely the normal skull structure has been moderated, including the misalignment of the teeth and jaws, leading to difficulties in eating. The images on the left also illustrate the narrow nostrils, eye discharge and tear staining (photos taken from Schlueter et al †, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery)