Cleft Palate in Dogs and Cats

Dr. Jacqueline Brister

Cleft palate is an abnormal opening or hole connecting the roof of the mouth to the nasal cavity or nose. This condition is usually congenital, meaning that dogs and cats develop the problem as they are growing in their mother’s womb. In some pets, this condition may be inherited from their parents. Medications given to the mother during pregnancy, such as steroids, aspirin, or anti-seizure medication, have been known to cause cleft palate among litter mates from that pregnancy. In adults, occasionally injury or infection can cause a cleft palate (eg, chewing on electrical cords or infection from a stick lodged between the teeth). In puppies and kittens with congenital cleft palates, additional abnormal developmental issues, such as heart defects, may also occur.

When pets have a cleft palate, the hole in the roof of the mouth can cause food or milk to go into the nose instead of the stomach. You may see these substances run out of the nostrils when your pet eats. Sometimes this can lead to food and milk getting into the lower airways, such as the lungs, leading to life-threatening pneumonia. In other situations, the food or milk can cause infection within the nasal cavity, leading to a constant runny nose.

Cleft palate can be difficult to notice in very young puppies and kittens. They have very small mouths and noses and it is typical for their mothers to keep them licked clean. A symptom that you may notice is the puppy or kitten being a smaller size than the rest of their litter mates. This can occur because they have trouble getting the nutrition they need into their stomachs. Sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose are other common symptoms seen with cleft palate.

If you suspect your pet has a cleft palate, you should take them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. The veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination. This will include looking in your pet's mouth and nose, checking for fever, and listening to their heart and lungs. Sometimes pets will need to be sedated in order for the veterinarian to fully examine the mouth. X-rays are commonly performed to ensure that the jaw is normal and that pneumonia has not occurred within the lungs. Most pets with cleft palate will require surgery before they are able to eat and drink normally. Multiple surgeries, spread out over time, are often needed to fix the hole correctly. These surgeries may require waiting until the pet is old enough and their body is mature enough to handle the anesthesia and surgical-recovery period. In the meantime, pets will often need to be fed with a special tube to prevent food and milk from going into their nose.

Many pets recover well after successful surgical correction. Unfortunately, when surgery is not an option, or if pneumonia occurs, pets can die as a result of cleft palate. Be sure to discuss all of your questions or concerns with your veterinarian. The veterinarian will help you better understand all of your options and how best to care for your pet.

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