A cleft palate is a hole in the roof of the mouth because of incomplete fusion of the hard palate. The result is a partially or fully open connection between the nasal cavity and the mouth. Although we tend to associate it mostly with human babies, puppies can be born with cleft palates as well, and veterinary care is required to help them eat and breathe so they can thrive. Here are a few things to know about the care and treatment of a pup with a cleft palate.
Puppies with cleft palates often display difficulty eating and sometimes challenges with breathing as well. Weight loss or lack of weight gain is a classic sign, as is coughing, runny nose, especially if it’s coupled with listlessness and eventual fever, which can indicate pneumonia. If your puppy exhibits any of these symptoms, bring them to the vet and make sure that they’re checked for a possible cleft palate.
Some breeds are more likely to be born with cleft palates, especially including ones with shorter noses. Others with a higher incidence of cleft palates include dachshunds, shelties, labs, German shepherds, and beagles. Although it has a genetic component, it can also be brought on when the pregnant mother dog is exposed to certain chemicals or vitamin overdoses.
Specialized feeding methods including feeding tubes are sometimes required, especially with more advanced cases. Breastfeeding or standard bottle feeding risks aspiration into the lungs, which can cause serious infections like pneumonia. Sometimes bottles or syringes with specialized longer nipples can be used to bypass the gap in the palate, but there are a lot of cases requiring a tube fed down directly into the stomach. This requires more care and more consistent feeding, as well as making sure that puppies with cleft palates don’t try to nurse from their mothers.
Lips vs. Palates
Cleft lips don’t always coincide with a cleft palate, meaning you can’t always tell what’s going on simply by the aesthetics. Though both often go together, dogs can have one or the other, as can humans. Be sure to get your dog thoroughly checked as soon as you can to know if your dog has one or both, as this will likely impact the feeding and treatment plan. There are degrees of severity with both cleft palates and cleft lips. In some cases, it’s entirely cosmetic, but many cases require some type of surgical intervention.
Though they are born with cleft palates, generally surgery isn’t recommended until they’re 3 or 4 months old. Surgery on brand new puppies can be difficult, and they’re going to be doing a whole lot of growing in the first few months of their lives, which can make healing more challenging.
Once they receive the first surgery, that’s often enough, but sometimes they will need additional surgeries, either shortly after the first one or as they age. If you have a pup with a cleft palate, be sure to budget for this and/or make sure that your vet insurance covers the types of treatments your dog needs.
The best news is that the vast majority of dogs with cleft palates are totally fine after surgery and live long and happy lives. It can be challenging to care for these puppies through early feedings and surgeries, but they are absolutely worth it and benefit so much from loving, caring owners who are up for it.