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Virginia Tech expert: Tips to help at-risk dog breeds survive climate change

Crystal Graham
dog outside in yard
Image courtesy Virginia Tech

As climate change worsens, dogs with short snouts may suffer, and the reason comes down to science.

Lisa Gunter, an assistant professor in the School of Animal Science at Virginia Tech said dogs including pugs, boston terriers and bulldogs face challenges due to their restricted ability to thermoregulate.

Brachycephalic dog breeds also have narrowed nostrils, elongated soft palates and narrowed windpipes.

“These physical limitations make breathing difficult, causing these breeds to be particularly susceptible to heatstroke more so than other dogs in surprisingly mild weather and humidity,” Gunter said.

Struggling to breathe can also limit the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream, straining the hearts of brachycephalic dogs and making them more susceptible to heart problems.

“All dog owners, but especially those of brachycephalic dog breeds, have to be incredibly careful about the most quintessential dog-owner activity in extreme heat: dog walking.”

Gunter, who spent nearly a decade in Phoenix, Ariz., saw these challenges for pets and their owners first-hand.

Climate experts say that this type of heat will continue to become our new normal; and when air conditioning isn’t readily available, it could turn deadly for these breeds.

“Owners of brachycephalic dogs need to be much more aware of the heat and its devastating effects than typical dog owners,” said Gunter. “Seemingly routine activities with brachycephalic dogs, like a mid-day potty break in the backyard or coming along on a car ride, can be deadly in extreme heat if they’re accidentally forgotten about or closed in a space without air conditioning for just a few minutes.”

Gunter recommends that dog owners pay close attention to the time they schedule walks, where they walk, and how long the walks are.

“That becomes essential as does carrying water, no matter the outing’s duration,” said Gunter.

These breeds already have a short lifespan, making it more challenging. Gunter recommends pet owners do what they can to help their dog maintain a healthy weight.

“Excessive weight, which is something that can easily accumulate on brachycephalic dogs and can be exacerbated if they’re overfed and/or under-exercised.”

It’s also important to identify possible breathing problems that need veterinary attention.

“For dogs with moderate to severe breathing problems, surgery may be necessary to widen their nostrils and shorten their soft palate for better breathing.”

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.