Cleft palate in dogs – symptoms, treatment, and prevention

Cleft palate in dogs is a birth defect, characterized by incomplete fusion of either the upper lip or the palate, the roof of the mouth. In other words, the tissues of the palate or lips don’t grow together properly, leaving an opening between the mouth and the nasal cavity. 

This abnormal connection between the nasal passages and the mouth leads to more or less severe health problems in newborn puppies and it’s directly impacting their ability to eat and breathe. In severe cases, it can lead to aspiration pneumonia or sudden death.

The condition is hereditary, meaning there is a genetic predisposition. However, environmental factors can also play a role. 

If you are a professional or experienced dog breeder, you might be familiar with the term cleft palate in puppies. Yet, for new breeders, this could be a whole new concept. I have a printable Breeder Charts Bundle available in my shop, which includes a whelping chart with a designated space for notes on inspecting each puppy’s palate. I often get questions from novice breeders about it, they just don’t know what a cleft palate is.

And since you landed on this article, I’m assuming you want to learn more about this condition and if you can prevent it. So, here’s your guide 🙂

While I am a veterinarian, this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. If you have any medical concerns about your pet, consult your vet immediately. Always seek professional assistance if you are unsure of your pet’s health.

small puppy lying in a blanket

Understanding cleft palate in puppies

Cleft palate in puppies is an unfortunate yet not uncommon condition where the roof of the mouth fails to fully close during embryonic development, creating a gap between the nasal cavities and the mouth. 

This condition can manifest in two forms: the visibly apparent primary cleft palate (also known as cleft lip or harelip) and the more concealed secondary cleft palate.

A secondary cleft palate can occur in the bony portion of the roof of the mouth (cleft of the hard palate) or even further in the back of the mouth in the soft tissue (soft palate cleft). If you press your tongue on the roof of the mouth and move it from your front teeth backward, you’ll feel the difference between the hard and soft tissue. 

The condition is regarded as inherited, although some environmental factors may play a role as well.

Studies have shown that brachycephalic breeds (purebred dogs with short stubby faces like French bulldogs) have a higher risk of occurrence.

Why early detection matters

Early detection is crucial. While a cleft lip is easily noticeable, the secondary palate cleft requires a detailed examination of the oral cavity. 

For a clearer understanding, you can google images for “cleft palate in puppies”. I promise you’ll find plenty of pictures, mostly of primary, clearly visible, cleft palate. I’m sorry but I don’t have any pictures myself (and I’m not going to use them since they are copyrighted 🙂 🤷‍♀️ ).

Symptoms of a cleft palate in dogs

While some puppies have a visible cleft in their upper lips, puppies with a secondary cleft (the one inside the mouth) can appear healthy and normal at first glance. However, they often struggle with suckling and swallowing, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Sneezing and snorting
  • Trouble breathing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Coughing and gagging while drinking
  • Milk exiting through the nose

The puppies suffer from nutritional deficiencies, which lead to poor growth. They are often much smaller than their healthy siblings. 

In severe cases, inhalation of milk can cause aspiration pneumonia or even lead to sudden death.

Since sometimes the cleft is hidden deep in the oral cavity, each newborn puppy should be thoroughly examined by a veterinarian or an experienced breeder. 

How is cleft palate in dogs diagnosed

Diagnosing a cleft palate in newborn puppies requires a meticulous approach, beginning with a thorough physical examination immediately after birth. Early detection is crucial for managing this congenital condition effectively. 

Veterinarians or experienced breeders typically start with a visual inspection to identify any obvious signs of a cleft lip, which is the more visible form of this defect. However, the challenge lies in diagnosing a cleft of the palate, especially if it is located further back in the mouth and not immediately visible. 

In addition to physical examination, observing the puppy’s behavior during its first attempts to nurse can offer us critical clues. Puppies with a cleft palate often struggle with suckling, may cough or gag while feeding, and could exhibit milk coming out of their noses. These are an important indicator that something is not right.

For a definitive diagnosis, we can use advanced imaging techniques such as radiographs (X-rays) or, in some cases, a computed tomography (CT) scan to assess the extent of the cleft and plan for potential surgical intervention. These tools provide detailed visualizations of the skull’s anatomy, allowing veterinarians to see the exact size and location of the cleft, which is vital for determining the most effective treatment plan.

a litter of newborn puppies

Treatment options for cleft palate in small puppies

Treatment depends on the location and the severity of the defect. The typical recommendation for newborn puppies is bottle or tube-feeding small quantities of milk every two hours. When the puppies are mature enough and have no health issues, they can undergo corrective surgery after 4 weeks of age. 

Small cleft lips might not necessitate medical intervention, being more of a cosmetic concern. Many pet owners prefer to correct them for aesthetic reasons.

The secondary cleft palate requires surgical intervention. However, cleft palate surgery is difficult and risky in such small pups and often requires tube feeding and intensive care for a prolonged time.  There are different surgical techniques we can use to correct cleft defects, which one the surgeon chooses depends on the patient’s health status and individual needs. 

The success of the surgical procedure depends on the skill of the veterinary surgical team, the health and resilience of the puppy, and the commitment to post-operative care by the pup’s caregivers. While recovery can be challenging, with a risk of complications such as dehiscence (reopening of the surgery site) or infection, many dogs go on to lead healthy, normal lives post-surgery. 

The goal of surgical intervention is not only to correct the physical defect but also to enhance the pup’s overall well-being, allowing them to eat, breathe, and vocalize without difficulty, and to fully enjoy their lives as active and happy dogs.

Can a dog survive with a cleft palate?

Sadly, most puppies born with a cleft palate are euthanized. If the owners opt in for a treatment, the prognosis depends on the severity of the condition and other symptoms. Puppies suffering from pneumonia or malnutrition have a poor prognosis – their tiny bodies are too weak to survive the surgery or the post-op intensive care. 

Natural nealing: Is it a possibility?

Cleft palates do not heal on their own. The only effective treatment is surgical intervention.

printable puppy planner

Can you prevent cleft palate in dogs?

As I said, it is mostly a congenital defect that happens during fetal development. However, studies have shown that supplementing folic acid can reduce the occurrence. 

If you were ever pregnant, you were probably given folic acid as a food supplement. Research shows that taking folic acid before getting pregnant and during at least the first 12 weeks of pregnancy lowers the risk of various birth defects. So it became a common practice in human medicine. 

Now more and more research is done in veterinary medicine as well, with very similar results. 

Folic acid has to be given orally enough time before the birth and in the right concentration. 

Nowadays, you can get veterinary-recommended diets developed specifically for pregnant dogs. They include the appropriate levels of folic acid, along with balanced nutrients necessary for the health of the mother and her developing puppies.

Talk to your vet about the proper nutrition of your pregnant bitch.

And since genetics play a role as well, be careful when selecting your breeding dam. Always look at the whole litter and consider not only the individual dog but also their lineage and offspring.

And sometimes, no matter how careful you are, things like this just happen. That’s life 💔

Good luck! ❣️🐾

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