Liaison: Hazel Fitzgibbon
Cleft palate is a disorder occasionally seen in newborn puppies. A cleft palate results when the tissues forming the roof of the mouth do not grow together normally. This leads to an opening in the roof of the mouth that communicates with the nasal cavity. The opening can be in the forward part of the mouth (hard palate) or at the very back (soft palate).
Signs and Symptoms
Cleft palate puppies do not thrive. Because the mouth cavity connects with the nasal cavity, they cannot develop the suction necessary to obtain enough milk. They may seem okay at first, but soon become weak and fall off the teat. When they do feed, milk may be seen coming out their noses. They snuffle a lot and sneeze. They can aspirate milk into their lungs, leading to pneumonia. Because they don’t get enough milk, they lose weight and become lethargic.
Upon examination, an opening can be seen or felt in the roof of the mouth (see Diagnostic Tests).
Cleft palate may be genetic, or due to something that happened to the mother during the early stages of pregnancy, such exposure to toxins, drugs (for example, cortisone or hydroxyurea) or some viruses. Nutritional factors, either folic acid deficiency or vitamin A excess, have also been suggested.
Family history if genetic; exposure to toxins or drugs during pregnancy; nutrition during pregnancy.
Cleft palate is most common in brachycephalic breeds (those with broad heads and very short, muzzles).
The palate is examined by visual inspection or by feel. New born whelps should all be examined to see if the roofs of their mouths are complete. If you cannot actually see down the length of the palate, running a finger down the centre of the top of the mouth will give you an idea. You can feel even a slight cleft; it feels like the teeth on a zip fastener. The cleft can be slight, just being at the very back of the mouth, or extensive with a slit from the back to the front of the mouth, sometimes even including the lip. An experienced breeder or veterinarian should be able to diagnose the problem. Newly certified vets might never have seen a cleft palate, so rely on experience on this one.
Note: Treatment of animals should only be performed by a licensed veterinarian. Veterinarians should consult the current literature and current pharmacological formularies before initiating any treatment protocol.
In the interests of the puppy, the owner should consider euthanization. Although euthanizing costs money, it is unfair to let such puppies starve to death, and be of no doubt, unless you tube feed, this is the inevitable result. With tube feeding, the puppy may still die or die from complications of pneumonia caused by food or liquids getting into the lungs.
If you consider corrective surgery, it can’t be done until the puppy is older, and even then may not be successful. Defects of the hard palate are more difficult to correct than defects of the soft palate. The puppy would have to be tube fed (round the clock at first) for months until surgery could be performed.
Research has yet to determine the exact cause of cleft palate and considering the life threatening aspects and hardship to both owner and puppy, it would be ill advised to breed an animal who survived until adulthood. See ‘Suggested Links’ for stories from breeders who have run such puppies on.
Photos and Descriptions of Cleft Palate on the American College of Veterinary Surgeons website
Elwood JM, Colquhoun TA. Observations on the prevention of cleft palate in dogs by folic acid and potential relevance to humans. N Z Vet J. 1997 Dec;45(6):254-6.
A description with anatomical terms: http://www.provet.co.uk/health/diseases/cleftpalate.htm
No support group currently available. There are some individual accounts of raising and losing puppies. Most literature is about the problem in humans.
Extensive article on this topic: http://www.lowchensaustralia.com/health/cleftpalate.htm
Although corrective surgery is not generally recommended by the veterinarian community, this site gives you some graphics and an idea on costs: http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/cleft.htm