down in the mouth: cleft palates in pets
Just like children, our pets can be born with cleft palates, too. A cleft palate is a congenital condition of both dogs and cats, meaning that it is present at birth. This is not a condition that you will ever have to worry about your pet developing with time – either it is present at birth, or it is not!
Cleft palates happen when the roof of your pet’s mouth doesn’t close properly during embryonic development. This results in an opening in your pet’s hard or soft palate (or both), which communicates with the nasal passage.
Cleft palates can be identified readily on physical exam. Breeders and veterinarians will know to look for this condition when pups and kittens are born, but many owners who find themselves dealing with a pet in labor may not know to check. Sometimes a cleft lip will occur concurrently, which may give owners a clue that a cleft palate might also be present.
Obviously, the communication between oral and nasal passages that results from a cleft palate is less than ideal, especially at meal time. The classic sign of a cleft palate is drainage of milk from the nose after nursing, but other signs include persistent nasal discharge, difficulty suckling, and delayed growth. Patients born with cleft palates are also prone to aspiration pneumonia, a condition caused by the inhalation of foreign material – in this case, food. Aspiration pneumonia causes coughing and can easily lead to serious illness.
Cleft palates are seen more frequently in brachycephalic dog breeds (those with very short noses), Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, Labs, and Schnauzers. Our feline friends can also be affected by cleft palates. Breeds that are particularly prone include Norwegian forest cats, Persians, Ragdolls, Siamese, and Ocicats.
Cleft palates can usually be corrected surgically. Once diagnosed, puppies and kittens with cleft palates should be cared for supportively until they are old enough for corrective surgery. Feeding these pets by hand with a long nipple can help food bypass the cleft palate and lessen clinical signs. Owners of puppies and kittens with cleft palates should be on constant lookout for signs of aspiration pneumonia so treatment can start early.
Cleft palates can occur due to genetic defects, so affected animals should not be bred. Exposure of the mother to teratogenic agents (some medications/toxins) while pregnant is another cause for cleft palates.
Chances are, you’ll never come across a pet with a cleft palate, but if you do, it’s reassuring to know that most can be surgically corrected. Pets with corrected cleft palates will lead normal lives, without even an outward trace of what they went through as youngsters! If a cleft lip accompanied the cleft palate, you may be able to tell post-operatively, but don’t worry – the kisses will still feel the same!