Cleft Palate in Dogs

Bulldog with a cleft lip.

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Cleft palates may not be immediately noticed by a pet owner but this serious physical deformity in the mouth is one that needs special attention. By knowing what is involved in treating and caring for a dog with a cleft palate, a dog owner will be better informed and prepared if they discover this birth defect in their puppy.

What Is a Cleft Palate in a Dog?

A cleft palate is known by several names in dogs. Oronasal fistula, congenital oronasal fistula, primary cleft, harelip, cleft lip, and secondary cleft are all referring to this birth defect of a dog. A cleft palate occurs when the tissues of the mouth and/or lip do not grow together completely. This leaves an opening from the mouth to the nose which allows food and liquids to get into the airway. There are different types of cleft palates and some affect the hard or soft palates in the mouth while others affect the nostrils and lips. Some forms of a cleft palate are more obvious than others, especially if the nose and mouth are externally deformed. People and some cat breeds, such as Persians, can also be born with cleft palates.

Symptoms of a Cleft Palate in a Dog

There are several signs that a puppy has a cleft palate, even if they aren't obvious.

Signs of a Cleft Palate in a Dog

  • Deformed lip
  • Deformed nostril
  • Upper teeth sticking out of mouth
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing or gagging when drinking
  • Difficulty eating
  • Malnourished due to a difficulty of eating
  • Difficulty breathing

Since a cleft palate allows food, water, and saliva to enter the respiratory tract, a dog with this abnormality will often sneeze or have a runny nose. This is due to the excess fluid entering the nasal passages. Coughing or gagging when attempting to drink water will also occur since some of this water is going down the trachea instead of the esophagus. Difficulty breathing may occur if too much fluid goes down the airway as well.

Two main physical signs of a cleft palate or cleft lip include a deformed lip or a nostril. The upper teeth may even be sticking out of the mouth due to this physical deformity, too. These deformities and the fact that food and water can go down the airway make eating difficult so a dog may be malnourished if it isn't eating enough.

Causes of Cleft Palates in Dogs

Cleft palates are a congenital problem. This means dogs are born with this problem so it is a genetic condition for some and purebred dogs are more likely to have it than mixed breeds. Bulldog breeds and Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers are especially at risk.

Diagnosing a Cleft Palate in Dogs

A cleft palate is often noticed when a puppy is not gaining weight and eating well after birth. Milk may be coming out of its nose or it may cough and gag when trying to nurse. These are key indicators that there may be a cleft palate inside the puppy's mouth.

Since there are a few different kinds of a cleft palate, if it is not externally visible on the dog's mouth the inside of the mouth will need to be examined. The roof or back of the mouth will have an opening in it in a dog with a cleft palate. A small light or special oral examination tool called a laryngoscope may be needed to see the opening, especially in a small puppy. Occasionally sedation is needed to examine this abnormality.

Treatment of Cleft Palates in Dogs

Many puppies that have cleft palates are often euthanized shortly after birth due to the difficulty in feeding. But if a dedicated owner is able to tube feed and start the puppy on solid foods as soon as possible then these puppies can survive. Depending on the type of cleft palate, surgery may be necessary to try and fix the deformity but this is usually a costly procedure with a low success rate and major post-surgical care.

How to Prevent Cleft Palates in Dogs

Since cleft palates are a birth defect, selective breeding may be the only way to try and prevent a cleft palate in a dog. If a dog was born with a cleft palate it should not be used for breeding.