Flat-Faced Cats Are Even Weirder Than They Look

"If you are a light sleeper, they do tend to snore."

The short, upturned muzzle and glassy doll eyes that we’ve come to associate with cat breeds such as Persians or Scottish Folds may look adorable to us — but this unique face shape can come with unique complications.

Libby Joy and her younger brother Finnigan are living the good life: They have a family who loves them, and plenty of cool surfaces to lie on, but, like other flat-faced cats, these Instagram-famous kitties require some help doing normal everyday activities.

“They definitely require more care than your domestic shorthair would: Daily brushing, daily eye cleans and occasional baths,” Lindsay Meredith, their owner, tells The Dodo. “They need to have their eyes cleaned very regularly because their eyes drain quite a bit. We also have eye drops from the veterinarian that we have to give them occasionally.”

Flat-faced cats, known as brachycephalic cats, can experience a number of health consequences due to this genetic trait that has, over the last 50 years, become a standard in the cat-breeding industry, explains Dr. Ladan Mohammad-Zadeh, critical care specialist at DoveLewis Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital.

So what does it really mean to be a brachycephalic cat?

“Brachycephalic cats are flat-faced cats that have distorted skulls, like Persians and Himalayans. Other breeds can include the Scottish Fold, Burmese and exotic shorthair,” Mohammad-Zadeh tells The Dodo. “Essentially, their head shape can lead to health issues, which are very similar to the health issues brachycephalic dogs [pugs, Shih Tzus and Pekingese] experience.” The term “brachycephalic” refers to the distinctive skull shape, from the Greek roots "brachy" meaning "shortened" and "cephalic" meaning "head."

The mutation can come at a cost that many don’t factor in when awww-ing over doll-faced felines, such as Grumpy Cat and Snoopybabe, on the internet. Though Grumpy Cat’s permanently displeased expression is not caused by his breed, but instead a number of genetic abnormalities, including an underbite and feline dwarfism (Grumpy Cat’s parents were mixed-breed domestic shorthairs), the celebri-cat kicked off a craze for this doll-like appearance nonetheless.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking of adopting one of these distinctive felines:

Health consequences of “doll-faced” cats

Just as pugs have a tendency to snort and huff, if your cat’s face has that pushed-in look, he may experience breathing difficulties. “Breathing problems are the main health concern for brachycephalic cats, and the severity of the issue depends on the shape of their skull — essentially how flat-faced they are,” Mohammad-Zadeh explains.

“If you are a light sleeper, they do tend to snore. Finn also snorts a lot when he is playing,” Meredith notes. 

The shorter-than-normal skull doesn’t leave a lot of room for the cat’s mouth tissue, and could lead to smaller nostrils and nasal passages, which can contribute to airway obstruction and respiratory issues down the road.

A smaller mouth means teeth have to compete for space, which can also lead to dental issues. “Their teeth can be overcrowded, which causes issues like teeth rotating or overlapping,” Mohammad-Zadeh explains. “Sometimes they also experience a mandibular bite, where the lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw.”

This genetic predilection for underbites, which can make a cat look like his jaw is jutting out, does not usually require treatment, but it’s always good to get your kitty checked out if he has exposed fangs.

Those glossy, marble-like eyes and the connecting tear ducts come with their own set of issues.

“Their eyes protrude further than other cats and, therefore, are less protected,” Mohammad-Zadeh notes. “This allows fur, dust and other debris to get into the eyes more regularly. Many of these cats also experience consistent discharge from their eyes.” 

How to care for a flat-faced cat

“There’s really nothing specific that cat owners can do to help prevent these issues,” Mohammad-Zadeh explains. “But they can have a heightened awareness of the potential problems these cats face and pair that with regular vet visits and checkups.”

As with any pet, routine vet checkups are the best prevention, and if you see something unusual going on, don’t wait to get it checked out.

“If you start to see that your cat is squinting, having trouble breathing, having trouble eating or experiencing any abnormal health issues, don’t delay a visit to the vet,” Mohammad-Zadeh says. “Your doctor may see something that you didn’t notice at home.”

To keep your feline’s face clean and free of discharge, owners can wipe their cat’s face regularly with a warm, damp cloth, Mohammad-Zadeh recommends. Persians that tend to have trouble with eye debris may need special drops. “Occasionally their tears will get dark and thick and the drops help clear that up,” Meredith notes.

Flat-faced cat owners should also pay special attention to their cats’ eating habits, as their short muzzle may prove a challenge when scooping up dry or wet food.

“They have to root around more for food and put their whole face in the bowl due to the flatness, which makes it harder for them to pick up individual pieces,” Meredith explains. “I’ve had several cats in my life and these are the only two Persians I’ve ever had — and the only two that threw so much food out of the dishes when they ate.”

The long fur can also get in the way of these everyday activities, so regular grooming becomes extra important to keep your cat in tip-top shape.

“Finnigan has a habit of dipping his whole face into the water dish if the bowl is deep enough. This caused him to have neck/chin fur that was constantly soaked,” Meredith adds. “We have finally figured out how to prevent this by using a much more shallow and narrow dish for his water and keeping his neck fur trimmed up.”

Special care and plenty of snuggles will help keep your smushed-face cats purring in their special extra-loud way.