When puppies arrive to a family, the owners would make sure they are healthy and normal. But just like human babies, puppies could come into this world with a cleft palate.
Cleft palate is a congenital defect that occurs when the palate, or the tissues between the oral and nasal cavity, did not fuse together properly, thus forming a hole or space between the cavities of the mouth and nose.
Cleft palate is most likely inherited, since it is a congenital disorder. Dog breeds with shorter noses are most likely to have cleft palates, including beagles, dachshunds, Cocker spaniels, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and Shih Tzu.
While genetics can be the main cause, cleft palate in puppies can also be brought on if the mother dog was exposed to viruses, poisons, chemicals, nutritional deficiencies or vitamin A and D overdoses when she was pregnant.
There are two types of cleft palate:
- Primary cleft palate – also known as harelip or cleft lip. The cleft occurred on the lip.
- Secondary cleft palate – the cleft occurred along the bony section of the roof of the mouth.
Because of the cleft, a puppy may have difficulty breathing, eating and drinking – especially sucking milk from its mother. This could lead to delayed growth, dehydration, starvation and malnutrition. There is also a possibility that any liquid that the puppy would take in will enter the cleft and infect the lungs, leading to aspiration pneumonia and death.
To avoid those effects from happening, you have to be vigilant of the symptoms for cleft palate. For primary cleft palate, the symptoms are obvious: the dog can have one incorrectly shaped nostril, and the teeth and gums of the upper jaw may be showing. Meanwhile, the symptoms for secondary cleft palate may include:
- Coughing and gagging whenever they drink milk or water
- Runny nose, sneezing and snorting because food and saliva passes through the nose
- Respiratory difficulty caused by pneumonia
- Difficulty sucking
- Weight loss and slow growth
- Lack of appetite and trouble eating
Some puppies with a secondary cleft palate might have a round belly just as healthy puppies do, but they fail to thrive and gain weight. Once you have observed at least one of these symptoms, take your puppy to the veterinarian as soon as possible.
Small primary clefts on the lip and nostrils rarely cause problems for the dog. However, it looks unpleasant, so most pet owners choose to have it corrected.
Secondary cleft palates, especially those that affect the puppy’s ability to eat normally, requires surgical closure. This would not only help your pet receive adequate food and nutrition, but it can also prevent respiratory infections and difficulties. Since it would be difficult for the pet to undergo surgery at a very young age, it is postponed until they reach 3-4 months. Waiting for them to reach this age before surgery also allows the cleft opening to grow smaller and the oral cavity larger.
For the meantime, specialized feeding methods such as feeding tubes are used to feed them. With the help of a veterinarian, pet owners can learn how to pass a feeding tube during each meal. There are also a lot of instances that would require a tube to be fed down directly into the stomach. You also need to devote more time looking after them so that they won’t try to nurse from their mothers and risk getting an infection.
After a successful surgery, your veterinarian would advise restrictions for your dog as the surgery wounds still need healing. For puppies that had a previous infection or pneumonia, antibiotics will be prescribed by the vet. You might be advised to continue using a feeding tube for a week, but giving them a soft diet for the next 4-6 weeks is the usual protocol.
Once the puppy has fully recovered from the surgery, it can finally live like a normal dog.