Dog and cat cleft palates are relatively common conditions that result from the failure of the roof of the mouth (hard and soft palates) closing during normal embryological development - leaving a “cleft” in the roof of the mouth.
The result is cleft palates in kittens and puppies whose oral cavity communicates with their nasal passages. This leads to problems eating, swallowing, and receiving enough nutrition, but it also has respiratory implications.
While environmental factors during gestation may theoretically yield cleft palates, this is generally regarded as an inherited condition. As such, cleft palates in puppies are far more likely to suffer these defects when they are purebreds. This is especially the case for brachycephalic (short-headed) breeds and bulldogs.
Symptoms and Identification of Cleft Palates in Dogs & Cats
A cleft palate in cats and dogs typically look like a hole in the roof of the mouth. That hole may be larger or smaller and may vary in location (closer to the front or back of the mouth), but most are readily identifiable at birth. Some cleft palate defects may extend so far forward as to affect the lip.
Suppose the presence of a cleft palate isn’t identified by visual inspection of the pups’ oral cavities immediately after birth. In that case, the most typical sign that one or more pups in the litter may have a cleft palate involves difficulty suckling and swallowing.
Coughing, gagging, and milk bubbling from the nose are typical indicators of cleft palate in puppies, as are sneezing and snorting. Other signs (usually in less obvious defects) may include the failure of a pup to grow normally, a sudden onset of pneumonia (typically from aspiration), or sudden death.
Affected Breeds of Dog & Cat Cleft Palates
In one study, noticeably higher cases of cleft palates in dogs were found in bulldog breeds, which appeared to be 30% more likely to suffer from cleft lips and cleft palates than other breeds. Another found that bulldog breeds were at “exceptional risk” for cleft palates, while German shepherds and mixed breeds were at the lowest risk.
It’s interesting to note that Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers have a genetic mutation in a gene involved in normal palate development. This so-called CP1 mutation appears only in this breed.
Treatment for Cleft Palates in Dogs & Cats
Sadly, many cleft palates in kittens and puppies cause them to be euthanized immediately after their defects are detected. However, if handled with sufficient care and diligence, many of these puppies will survive.
If elected, treatment of cleft palate depends largely on the size and location of the defect, and the degree to which the affected puppy is currently affected (some pups may already suffer from pneumonia or malnutrition).
Bottle or tube-feeding small quantities of milk every two hours is a typical recommendation for neonates. Older pups may transition to solid foods as early as four weeks of age.
Assuming no serious complications ensue and pups are healthy enough, surgical correction may be advisable after four weeks of age. Each patient’s health concerns and palatal defect details will inform the ideal timing of surgery and the technique elected. Several surgical procedures may be necessary as these pups grow and their palates expand.
For this reason, as well as for reasons related to anesthetic risk, surgery is considered a last resort undertaken later in puppyhood when the palate is closer to its adult size.
Note: Surgeries for cleft palates in kittens and puppies have historically suffered a low success rate. However, when performed by a board-certified surgeon or board-certified veterinary dentist, puppies tend to enjoy a far higher rate of success.
It’s important to note, however, that even after successful surgical correction, long-term complications as a result of the defects of cleft palates in puppies and cats are possible, even more likely. These dogs are at higher risk of upper respiratory infections. Some will suffer a chronic nasal discharge that may or may not be definitively treatable.
Prevention of Cleft Palates in Cats & Dogs
Prevention involves breeding more diligently for traits that will minimize the risk of cleft palate defects. In general, breeding for exaggerated traits related to a shortened head, snub nose, and compressed airway structure will increase the risk of cleft palates.
Frequently Asked Questions About Dog & Cat Cleft Palates
How Do I Feed a Puppy or Kitten With a Cleft Palate?
You’ll want to use a feeding tube or long nipple to feed kittens and puppies with cleft palates.
Can Cleft Palate Be Genetic in Dogs and Cats?
While there is no concrete evidence to state that cleft palates in puppies or kittens are hereditary, it is believed that genetics play a role in the development of cleft palates.
How Long Do Dogs and Cats With Cleft Palates Live?
The lifespan of cats and dogs with cleft palates varies, but, unfortunately, the overall life expectancy is relatively short.
Are Cleft Palates Covered by Pet Insurance?
Unfortunately, because cleft palates are generally present and noticed at birth they are almost always considered a pre-existing condition by pet insurance companies.
Protect Your Dog and Cat's health with Pet Insurance
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