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Breed-Specific Ailments

In This Chapter

As a whole, Boston Terriers are healthy dogs with relatively few breed-specific medical ailments. Their strong constitutions are part of what makes them such long-lived companions, often reaching their 11th or 12th birthdays without a hitch.

Your Boston’s unique look, however, predisposes him to certain conditions, many of which can be attributed to his adorable flat face and diminutive stature. In this chapter, you can get the lowdown about several breed-specific ailments that Bostons commonly face and discover how you can make your pup’s life easier.

With a Snort and Wheeze

When you meet a Boston for the first time, his grunts and snuffles may surprise you. But they’re normal. Those sounds characterize the breed and, in time, you’ll grow to adore his little vocal oddities — even if his snoring wakes you up every night!

Your Boston, like French Bulldogs, Pugs, and other dogs with flattened faces, are referred to as being brachycephalic, which literally means having a short, broad, almost spherical head. The word is derived from Greek roots brachy meaning “short” and cephalic meaning “head.”
Because your Boston has a shortened head, his mouth, nose, windpipe, and larynx are shaped differently than other dogs’. This can cause those quirky noises, but his head shape can also cause high risk for heat stroke and breathing difficulties that can increase stress on the heart. Most brachycephalic symptoms, however, are not life threatening, but you need to make yourself aware of the challenges your pup may face.

Challenged chompers

With their flat faces, brachycephalic dogs don’t have a lot of space for their jaws and teeth. As a result, their jaws may develop abnormally, and their mouths tend to be crowded, causing misaligned teeth and bite problems.
The technical terms for these conditions are prognathia and teeth crowding:

Prognathia: Common among brachycephalic breeds, prognathism is when the dog’s mandible, or lower part of the jaw, is longer than his maxilla, or the upper jaw. This malocclusion, or abnormal bite, is considered normal in dogs like your Boston.

Teeth crowding: Crowding occurs when there is inadequate space for the teeth in the lower or upper jaw, resulting in tooth contact or overlap. Because your Boston must fit 42 teeth in his shortened mouth, it’s likely that his teeth will be misaligned.

A Boston with prognathia or crowded teeth requires you to be diligent about his oral hygiene. A secondary effect of teeth crowding is increased plaque with resulting gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums, and a predisposition to periodontal disease, the most common cause of tooth loss in dogs (and humans).
Brush your Boston’s teeth regularly to rid his mouth of plaque buildup and bacteria that can lead to halitosis (bad breath), behavior changes linked to oral pain, and gum infection. (Flip to Chapter Looking Good for details about how to brush your Boston’s teeth.)


If your Boston develops halitosis, chews his toys less frequently, paws at his mouth, changes his eating habits, stops grooming himself, or shows any other signs of oral pain, contact your veterinarian. She won’t recommend braces to straighten his teeth, but she may inspect his mouth, give it a thorough cleaning, and treat any localized infections.

Upper-airway syndrome

Brachycephalic breeds can be born with abnormally small openings to the nose or nasal cavity and relatively long soft palates (the roof of the mouth). Dogs generally breathe through their noses, so those affected by this upper-airway syndrome find it difficult to inhale through the narrow openings. As a result, they must work harder to breathe, even at rest, and doing so results in exaggerated breathing efforts.
Dogs who still can’t get enough oxygen often resort to breathing out of their mouth, resulting in that wheezing and snorting so characteristic of Bostons. In time, a lack of pressure within the airway causes swelling of the soft palate — which is already long — further obstructing airflow.
Telltale signs of upper-airway syndrome include

– Avoiding exercise

– Becoming short of breath after any mild exertion or stress

– Abnormal or noisy breathing when the dog becomes excited, such as when you return home from work

– Refusing to walk in hot weather because of the dog’s inability to release body heat through panting

Cyanotic (blue) gums from lack of oxygen

– Snoring loudly while asleep


This condition can be quite debilitating. Upper-airway syndrome may be life-threatening if your dog plays too exuberantly in hot weather. If your pup shows strained breathing after excitement or overexertion, and his breathing doesn’t return to normal within 5 to 10 minutes, call your veterinarian immediately and transport your Boston to the nearest hospital for treatment.


You can, however, minimize difficulties for your Boston by

– Keeping his weight down. Obesity can further complicate breathing problems.

– Exercising before the sun rises or after it sets during warm weather, and keeping him inside on hot, humid days.

– Never leaving your Boston outside or alone on a hot day with no shade or protection.

– Using a harness rather than a collar when going on walks.

– Closely monitoring your pup’s breathing.


Some Bostons benefit from surgical procedures that enlarge the nostril openings and shorten the long and swollen soft palate. This operation should be performed while the pup is under a year of age.

Tracheal hypoplasia

Brachycephalic breeds can be born with tracheal hypoplasia, or an underdeveloped or narrow trachea. Dogs with this anatomical disorder experience insufficient airflow through their trachea, or windpipe, even during normal breathing at rest.
No treatments exist to correct this problem, but you can help your Boston live with the condition. As with upper-airway syndrome (see the previous section), make it a habit not to exercise your Boston too forcibly or allow him to get overexcited. Doing so can lead to increased fatigue or even collapse after strenuous tasks or excitement. Clinical signs of respiratory difficulty, including cyanotic gums or collapse, warrant an emergency call to your veterinarian.
As a preventive measure, outfit your Boston in a harness rather than a collar for long treks. Pulling on the leash while walking can aggravate his breathing difficulties. You should also avoid using Martingale-style or choke collars if possible.

Dystocia: Birthing difficulties

Flat-faced breeds like your Boston typically have a narrow or small pelvis. This anatomical feature causes dystocia, or difficult birth or the inability to pass the fetus from the uterus through the birth canal. To further complicate matters, brachycephalic fetuses also have unusually large heads and wide shoulders, which further hinder normal birthing activities.
It’s not uncommon for a pregnant Boston to have a Caesarian section rather than a vaginal birth, especially if other females in the family have required one.

Because you’ve likely had your female Boston spayed (or you’re planning to do so!), this breed-specific challenge won’t affect your dog. If you plan to breed your Boston, however, consult your veterinarian for advice.

What Big Eyes You Have!

Boston Terriers’ eyes are set wide apart, square in the skull, with the outside corners in line with the dog’s cheeks as viewed from the front. It’s an endearing look, but because those eyes are so prominent, they can be prone to external injury, cataracts, and congenital defects.


If your Boston injures his eye or develops an eye problem, contact your veterinarian immediately for an examination. Because eye problems can worsen quickly, have them checked within 24 hours.

This section covers a few of the more common ocular problems.

Corneal ulcers

One of the most common ocular problems Boston Terriers experience is corneal ulcers, which are typically caused by trauma to the eye. Because those Boston eyes protrude from their skulls, they are more prone to scratches, scrapes, and pokes than other breeds’ eyes. Superficial injuries to the cornea, or the transparent outer tissue of the eye, can lead to infections or other more serious problems.
Some common causes of corneal ulcers include

– Allergies to dander, dust, or dirt, which can cause your Boston to paw at his eyes, scratching them.

– Foreign objects, such as sand, plant material, thorns, eyelashes, or flying debris, hitting the eye and scratching it.

– Getting too close to objects at eye level. Bostons who have had their whiskers removed (typically for conformation trials) lack sensory feelers and can misjudge the distance between their face and an external object, like a plant, causing them to rub against it.

– Other dogs accidentally scraping or bumping into your Boston’s eyes.


If your Boston’s eyes appear red or irritated, if he keeps the eyelid partially closed to avoid light, or if you see an abnormal discharge coming from his eye, contact your veterinarian immediately.


Here are some things you can do to protect your Boston’s orbs:

– Avoid prolonged sun exposure. Invest in a dog-size sun visor or some Doggles, which are available at most pet supply stores.

– Do not allow your Boston to ride in a car with his head out the window. Even when you take your Boston on a bike ride and let him sit in the basket or in a carrier, guard his eyes by making him wear eye protection of some kind.

– Avoid long hikes on dusty trails. If at all possible, limit your treks to grassy areas or paved roads. When you do hit the trail, protect his eyes and carry dog eye wash with you so you can rinse his eyes before he starts to scratch them.

– Keep dog eye wash in your travel and home first-aid kits.

– Landscape your yard with plants with minimal thorns, branches, or other growths at your Boston’s eye height. If you do have rose bushes, cacti, or bougainvillea, section those areas off with fencing so your dog steers clear of them.


Another very common problem in Boston Terriers is cataracts, both adult and juvenile varieties. A cataract is a spot, or opacity, of any size in the lens of the eye. The opacity is usually white, creating a milky appearance over the lens. The degree of vision impairment depends on the size of the cataract and its location within the lens.
Cataracts can be inherited, caused by trauma to the eye, or the result of other diseases, such as diabetes, or nutritional disorders during puppyhood. In adults, they can appear at any age. In juveniles, they begin to show between 8 weeks and 12 months of age. Most times, congenital cataracts don’t cause blindness, but they can be a handicap, especially to young dogs.
Watch for these signs that may indicate your Boston is developing cataracts:

– A bluish, white, or milky substance on his eye

– Acting surprised when you approach him from the side with the cataract

– Tendency to bump into things, to hesitate before jumping up or down, or to avoid unfamiliar environments

– Redness, inflammation, or drainage around the eye

If your Boston develops cataracts, here are some ways to make his life a little easier:

– Keep objects in the house in consistent places.

– When outside, confine your dog to a fenced yard and always walk your pup on a leash.

– If he shows signs of discomfort, this can indicate an underlying cause. Talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s symptoms and ask about ways to ease his suffering.


Though you can’t stop cataracts from growing or reverse their damage, they can be surgically corrected. Talk to your veterinarian for more information about treating cataracts and getting a referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Bulging eyeballs

Normally, the eyelids cover and protect the eyeball so only a small portion of the sclera, or white portion of the eye, is visible. With Boston Terriers and other brachycephalic breeds, however, the shortened facial bones and shallow bony orbit cause the eyeballs to protrude, exposing more of the sclera — and the eyeball — to the environment.
This abnormality, known as macroblepharon, or excessively long eyelids around their bulging eyeballs, can lead to a macropalpebral fissure, or an enlarged eyelid opening.
This condition is not life threatening, but it can look strange, especially to people who aren’t familiar with brachycephalic breeds. Dogs with macroblepharon and macropalpebral fissures can have red eyes due to excessive exposure to the environment. Other complications include chronic tears or mucus, corneal melanosis (black or brown pigmentation of the cornea), and defective eyelid position or movement.


In severe cases of macroblepharon, the eyeball is susceptible to proptosis, or forward protrusion of the eye, where the eyeball can roll forward and pop out of the orbital socket. This trauma most commonly occurs after a blunt blow to the head, pressure to the neck, or a bite wound to the eye area. If this happens, it’s a medical emergency and requires immediate medical care to save the eyeball and the dog’s vision.

Other eye problems

Those big, beautiful eyes are prone to a host of other ocular disorders, too. Here are some of them:

Cherry eye

This ailment involves the tear gland that normally sits at the base of the dog’s third eyelid. It can enlarge and protrude beyond the leading edge of the displaced third eyelid, appearing as a round, red mass (cherry eye).
Under veterinary supervision, the disorder can be treated with topical anti-inflammatory medication to return the tear gland to its normal size and prevent further irritation, but cherry eye almost always requires surgical intervention to return the eye to its normal appearance.

Abnormally growing eyelashes

Some Bostons suffer from distichiasis, a condition in which eyelashes grow from abnormal locations along the eyelid, damaging the cornea and conjunctiva. The irritation can cause excessive tearing with inflammation.
This conformation defect can be corrected by a veterinary ophthalmologist, who can remove the stray hairs by surgical excision or by cryosurgery, a procedure that uses extreme cold (freezing) to destroy unwanted tissue.


Typically occurring in older dogs, glaucoma is a buildup of fluid, causing pressure inside the eye. The pressure causes pain and eventually destroys the retina (the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye), which can lead to blindness.
An eye affected by glaucoma often appears bloodshot, or the cornea may look cloudy. By the time the eye begins to enlarge or swell, it’s likely that the dog is experiencing vision loss. If glaucoma occurs in one eye, it’s likely that the other eye will develop it, too.
After glaucoma is diagnosed by your veterinarian, the disorder can be treated through medical therapy, such as eye drops or pills that decrease fluid production in the eye, or surgical procedures that involve draining the excess fluid. Talk to your veterinarian about the different options that are available.


If you suspect that your Boston has glaucoma, consider it an emergency and contact your veterinarian immediately for an examination.

Rolled eyelids

Some Bostons experience entropion, where their eyelid rolls inward so that the eyelashes and eyelid hairs rub against the cornea, resulting in eyeball irritation or injury. Severe cases require surgical correction.

Dry-eye syndrome

Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), or dry-eye syndrome, is when a Boston’s tear glands don’t produce enough tears. This results in irritated eyes, corneal ulceration, and possible scarring. With veterinary supervision, KCS can be treated with various topical therapies, including artificial tear solutions and ointments. In chronic cases, surgery may be required.

Say What?

Boston Terriers exhibit a relatively high incidence of both unilateral (one ear) and bilateral (both ears) deafness, especially among those who have blue eyes or a high percentage of white in their coats. Some geneticists link this congenital deafness to the piebald gene, the gene for a white color, which can cause deafness in animals with blue eyes and white coats.
Some breeders perform a hearing test on their puppies, called a brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test, which detects electrical activity in the cochlea (an area of the inner ear) and auditory pathways in the brain. Bostons who test positive for deafness are usually not bred, but they still make wonderful pets.
In unilaterally deaf dogs, most owners won’t even notice a problem. But with dogs who are deaf in both ears, the defect poses a challenge because it eliminates the major line of communication between you and the Boston. Most owners resort to training their deaf dog with hand signals and other specialized techniques.
Here are some other ear problems that your Boston may develop:

Outer-ear infection: Otitis externa, an infection of the outer ear, occurs when wax, dirt, debris, and infectious material falls down into the dog’s ear canal, or the outer ear. The material collects and causes the canal to swell, trapping moisture and creating an ideal environment for infection.

External parasites: Ear mites, which are tiny arachnids related to ticks and spiders, infest the ear canal of dogs and cats. They cause a dry, reddish-brown wax that can block the ear canal in some cases, which sets up an environment for infection.


You can recognize signs of ear disease before they develop into more serious problems, which could result in permanent damage. Watch for these signs, and contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your Boston is suffering.

Trick Knees

In some Bostons, the bones, muscles, and ligaments surrounding the kneecaps of their hind legs, or patellas, are too narrow, weak, or shallow to keep the kneecaps in place. When a dog has a luxated patella, the kneecaps slip in and out of position when the dog exercises or jumps off the furniture. The dog hops and skips around until his kneecap pops back into place. The knee can slip inward toward the body or outward. Though this problem can be caused by trauma, often it’s a genetic disorder.

You can provide ramps or steps down from high places to prevent your Boston from leaping off the furniture and dislocating his patella. Surgery can help correct the problem in chronic cases, but your veterinarian can also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs to help with the pain.

by Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

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