This article will help you
better understand cleft palate in puppies and kittens. If your
pet is showing any symptoms or signs of disease, please contact your
veterinarian. We want you and your pet to be happy and healthy.
Canine Cleft Palate
Cleft palate is a skeletal disorder occasionally seen in puppies and
kittens of all breeds. A cleft palate results when the bones forming
the roof of the mouth do not grow normally. This results in an opening
in the roof of the mouth that communicates into the nasal cavity.
What are the symptoms?
Puppies and kittens as young as one day old will often have milk come
out their noses as they nurse. They may also inhale milk into their
lungs, causing a difficulty in breathing or even pneumonia. When the
pet's mouth is examined, a slit will be seen in the roof of the mouth.
What are the risks?
The milk tends to enter the nasal passages and lungs. Most patients
will die at an early age from pneumonia and/or malnourishment.
What is the management?
Mild openings in the mouth roof can be surgically corrected.
More severe instances cannot. Frequently if the cleft palate cannot
be surgically closed, euthanasia is advised.
click on photos to see larger image
What is Cleft lip/palate?
This is an opening in the lip or the roof of the mouth that occurs due
to failure of normal fusion processes during embryonic development.
Cleft palate and cleft lip may result from either hereditary or
environmental causes (such as the use of certain drugs during
How is cleft lip/palate inherited?
Cleft palate is believed to be an autosomal recessive trait in the
Brittany spaniel. In the English and French bulldog, pointer, and
shih tzu, the trait may be autosomal dominant with incomplete
What breeds are affected by cleft lip/palate?
English and French bulldog, pointer, shih tzu, Boston terrier, Brittany
spaniel, cocker spaniel, dachshund, German shepherd, Labrador
retriever, miniature schnauzer, and Pekingese.
For many breeds and many disorders, the studies to determine
the mode of inheritance or the frequency in the breed have not been
carried out, or are inconclusive. We have listed breeds for which there
is a consensus among those investigating in this field and among
practitioners, that the condition is significant in this breed.
What does cleft lip/palate mean to your dog & you?
Affected pups are born with the condition. A minor defect will cause
little or no problem, while a more severe defect will cause signs such
as a chronic nasal discharge (that may include food), poor growth,
aspiration pneumonia (from inhalation of food), or even death.
How is cleft lip/palate diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will diagnose these conditions on physical
How is cleft lip/palate treated?
Mild problems may not require any treatment, but more serious defects
will require surgical repair to prevent complications such as
Affected animals should not be used for breeding, and it is prudent to
avoid breeding their parents and siblings as well.
INFORMATION ABOUT THIS DISORDER, PLEASE SEE YOUR VETERINARIAN.
© 1998 Canine Inherited Disorders Database. All rights
Revised: April 03,
This database is a
joint initiative of the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre at
the Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island,
the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
reprinted with kind
Alice Crook, DVM,Coordinator, Sir James Dunn Animal
Welfare Centre, Atlantic Veterinary College,University of Prince Edward
Island, 550 University Ave.Charlottetown, PEI C1A 4P3
BIRTH DEFECTS: CLEFT PALATE WHY AND WHEN
Hope that you never have a litter with cleft palates. But if you do,
this may explain the cause of at least some cases.
Let’s start at the beginning, with a short review of the birds and the
bees. The sperm cell, with half the chromosomes needed for a new pup
(and a little less than half the DNA it will get) penetrates the
ovum (egg) and triggers cell division, with the multiplying cells
having the right number of chromosomes, and characteristics from both
families. After a while, these cells are seen to start segregating some
in groups that will later form intestines, some groups that will become
heart tissues, others destined to end up as reproductive organs, etc.
It takes a while, so part of the way through the process, you might
have a club whose members act alike for a time, but then, like Southern
Baptists, split into splinter groups that become increasingly different
from the cells whose division formed
them. Some chromosomes in any one group go dormant, while others take
the job of activating the DNA and RNA that determine whether the cells
skin or hair cells, whether they express pigment, and a multitude of
inherited things. Chromosomes that deal with how a dog barks do not
in cells that make up the skin, even though all the chromosomes with
genes are in all the somatic body cells. After the first few divisions
the fertilized egg, the mass is called an embryo. Like a seed or acorn
contains all the leaves, bark, roots, growth patterns, disease
resistance, and more, the animal embryo can be thought of as the grown
dog and its descendants in future tense.
In some lower animals, the segregation of tissues in the embryonic
urogenital tract never is completed, the way we understand it in
mammals, where the genitals are near but distinct from the urinary
organs. You can think of them as having an interrupted or halted
development compared to the higher animals. However, the closer to the
time of conception and early division, the less the differences in
embryos of worms, frogs, Chihuahuas, water buffalos, and pterodactyls.
The differences become apparent as the cell groups continue to
specialize, which is an ongoing process up to and even after birth.
Sometimes something goes wrong during the embryonic development of
structures on their way to completion. If development is halted or
damaged, the part of the body that should be normal later, just isn’t.
The example we are looking at here is the development of the central
dorsal line of the body. Early embryos in that area look a little like
flat worms or pancakes, and as they (we, too) grow, the edges curl or
fold up and are supposed to unite along the top. Ever make raviolis or
apple tarts? You fold the edges of the pastry so that the filling is
and you pinch the dough together in order to fuse it and keep the
from falling or leaking out, until you can bake it. The spinal cord is
the ravioli filling, and the finished vertebral column is the baked
If the phone rings before you pinch the dough, and your darling toddler
daughter puts the half-completed job into the oven and cooks them
you get back, the contents are exposed. A similar thing can happen in
molding of the body if embryonic development is interrupted. Premature
babies are at higher risk because some of them haven’t finished the
of closure before they are popped into the oven known as the world
of the womb. Incomplete frontal skull bones, spina bifida, and
are examples of the defects that can occur along the dorsal midline.
Midline closure defects are expressed in a variety of ways; in German
Shepherd Dogs, I have seen incomplete closure to the midline of the
scalp, incompletely formed tails, skull defects, spina bifida, and
cleft palates. I believe them to be related in most cases. Sometimes
midline abnormalities are found; some would include umbilical hernias,
and although they may be an embryo defect of another sort, I doubt
are related to the others. Cleft lip (harelip) is probably caused at
a different time during gestation than cleft palate or the other
named above. As we say in good obedience training and many other
Timing is everything.
Cleft palate is a condition in which, for genetic and/or environmental
reasons, the hard surface of the roof of the mouth and the softer
palate behind it fail to close completely. The first sign something is
wrong (if you don't examine your pups immediately after delivery) is
usually milk bubbling out the nose when the newborn attempts to nurse.
In addition to strictly genetic cause, there are numerous other cases
of environmentally-mediated cleft palate. It is a frequent defect found
in offspring of diabetics. It has been produced experimentally by
vitamin A imbalance whether too much or too little, and is often a
result of poisons and steroids taken or produced by bitches in the
first three weeks of gestation. Such corticosteroid production increase
frequently can be associated with unsound character and/or a severe
scare (fright). In canines, a deficiency of vitamin B-12 has also been
identified as a cause. Antihistamines given early in pregnancy, at
least in some doses, are also suspect. Viral infections at that stage,
or certain other chemicals have also been determined to cause cleft
palate. I believe natural or synthetic hormones and steroids are
potentially very dangerous if given to bitches during pregnancy; most
of the time, cleft palate is a steroid caused birth defect. Cortisone
and similar steroids can
also facilitate spontaneous bleeding, which is more perilous during
and surgical convalescence than at other times.
Possible Problems In The First Three Weeks
While some deaths and other difficulties are genetically controlled or
otherwise out of the breeder's power to prevent, many are avoidable if
the midwife/pediatrician is knowledgeable and careful. Generally
speaking, if you pay heed to the subjects of genetics, nutrition,
sanitation, disease prevention, and management, you'll increase your
chances for a normal, healthy, successful litter growing to adulthood.
Start with the bitch, for a healthy female will make for a healthy
litter in most instances. Some drugs or excessive vitamin A
administered during pregnancy have been identified as causing cleft
palate, reduced litter size, mummified fetuses, and nervous system
disorders, as well as eye, ear, and heart defects in the pups. Exposure
to too much carbaryl (Sevin is the most common tradename) insecticide
may produce deformities in intestines and abdominal-thoracic fissures;
other insecticides may cause skeletal deformities in pups if the
pregnant bitch has been exposed to very high levels. Be sensible in
your use of these, and your dam will likely be safe. A friend of mine
tragically dosed his bitch with 10% Sevin dust (the concentration used
for garden pests) instead of far less of the 5% dust used for fleas and
ticks, when she was newly delivered of a litter of pups. It killed both
her and all of the puppies. It was the wrong time to use it, and
he used far too much.
During the first week, the combination of the dam's carelessness and
failure to lactate account for the greatest losses in neonatal deaths,
and the latter may be partly due to the breeder's carelessness in the
area of sanitation and prevention of infection. Statistically speaking,
the less common causes of death in that first week include cleft
palates, which are probably found in less than 3 percent. Such pups
either are euthanized on the second day or die soon after from
aspiration pneumonia due to the milk they suck going through the nasal
passages into the lungs.
Harelip is a split in the front portion of the palate, extending up the
center of the front lip between where the middle incisors would later
come in, and as far as the nose bulb in most cases. It is caused by a
disruption in the embryo development at a slightly different time than
cleft palate is. Sometimes, if the psycho-biochemical disruption has
continued for a longer period of time than an instantaneous trauma, you
may find both conditions in the same pups. You may have met people with
both. Although it is surgically treatable in humans, it is not, or at
least is not worth the effort, in dogs.
Brief Selections from Case Histories
Several years ago an Ohio dog club member had a small litter of puppies
born with cleft palates. One puppy had the cleft palate alone, another
had the malformed lip/mouth, and another puppy was born with
all its internal organs outside its body. This is an instance of where
midline closure defect is expressed on the ventral portion of the dog
as well. All pups in the litter died.
She found out, through some detective work, that it was due to a
chemical ingested or inhaled. Nothing in her house or yard would have
caused this and she asked around the neighborhood if anyone sprayed any
yard chemicals (pesticides, insecticides, herbicides). Nobody did, or
at least in her neighborhood. She finally figured out that when she was
visiting her son at a new neighborhood and park that her dog had been
to chemicals sprayed on the grass, and then found out that a neighbor
his across the street had in fact had the famous-name company spray
yard, but took the flags down as soon as they were finished. So her dog
was exposed to the lawn chemicals by absorption through the very porous
pads as well as possibly by inhaling for a day or two. This was at the
critical point in her pregnancy and pups’ embryo development when this
would most likely cause this problem. The first trimester is the time
I once bred a bitch who was hard as nails to a great show dog
named Hein, noted for pigment and hips, and my litter had one somewhat
flighty, spooky bitch pup whose temperament characteristics did not
immediately show themselves. When that bitch grew up, the owners bred
her. During the first trimester, this bitch had a sudden and traumatic
fright. Even though it lasted only a few minutes, and her nervousness
at a peak for a few hours or more, the repercussions followed at
Her litter all were born with cleft palates. A couple had harelip as
All were euthanized. She never had any pups with cleft palate
The male that I bred my bitch to was of normal temperament, but
more than his share of nervous offspring. One all-black son of his,
by the owners and named Phantom, produced many spooky pups and a great
deal more were produced by his offspring, in turn.
Such changes from the norm of midline closure are possible through that
psychophysical route, such as a bitch in that stage of pregnancy being
badly frightened or startled. Her own hormonal chemicals act the same
way that administered steroids could. Of course, the always-flighty or
nervous bitch is far more susceptible to such an unusual event than a
stable bitch is.
When I had mentioned that observation in a magazine article, someone
wrote to me, How could that theory account for the marked association
of facial cleft with brachycephaly? Short-faced bitches are more
nervous and flighty perhaps? Or could it be genetic, I wonder! No, as I
had written, there are more causes than this one. Nervous temperament
can be and usually is very strongly genetic, as would be any unusual or
"touchy" reaction to steroidal imbalance. Plus, brachycephalic dogs,
however lovely in
the eyes of owners, are short-faced because of abnormal
pituitary/hypophysis glands. This "master gland" affects all other
endocrine glands and all hormones, directly or indirectly. Including
those that affect cleft palate. Perhaps the defect that causes a
Bulldog face with pushed-in nose and undershot jaw is side-by-side with
the defect that directly or indirectly interferes with normal midline
closure in the embryo just before birth or earlier in gestation.
Although kennel-blind fanciers of Lhasa Apsos and other short-faced
breeds have claimed that this opinion is not supported by anything we
know about endocrinology or genetics, I have studied enough biology and
genetics to disagree. It is generally assumed that the growth patterns
such as shape of head (some breeds such as Saints, Newfies, etc.
"juvenile" looks) are related to the function of the
and growth hormones interacting with other hormones. I learned a long
ago that the pituitary/hypophysis of breeds with Pug/Peke/Bulldog-type
faces are physically different than those in breeds with "ancestral"
heads (GSDs, wolves, Malamutes, Spitz, etc.) I leave it up to the
to come up with a better explanation as to why these brachycephalic
have the look of a dog that ran 35 mph into a brick wall.
A Westie breeder wrote to me: We also one time had a whole litter of
clefts. There was no history of clefts in either the line of the
dog or the bitch. In fact, we had bred both sire and dam previously
with no clefts at all. We spoke to various veterinarians about this.
they determined it was from a viral infection that I had when the
were in the critical period of gestation. Could be. Environmental
can make for somatic irregularities. That same correspondent later
Thank you! This explains the cleft palate puppy we had last year after
our two bitches got into a fight. Dusty was at the critical time for
palate development. And my other bitch lost her whole litter! Hormones!
To avoid midline closure defects, there are several steps you
should take. Naturally, the first is to be careful about your choice
of breeding pairs. After insuring the genetic component as much as
make sure that the environment is one that promotes good health and
avoids toxins and psychological traumas. Don’t let your bitch roam,
especially during the first 3 weeks of pregnancy. Make sure you do
everything to favor
full-term gestation. If you have brachycephalic (especially toy) breeds
such as Pekes, Pugs, Bulldogs, Bostons, and the like, research the
and siblings for any problems before you breed your own dog.
And, since it is not all that common, Don’t worry; be happy.
Fred Lanting, All rights reserved, but reprinting allowed after
permission. Please read his other articles on http://siriusdog.com/sphider/search.php?query=lanting&search=1
, for example, or e-mail him at: Mr.GSD@netscape.com
or Mr.GSD@Juno.com for specific
Editor’s Note: A
well-respected and frequent GSD specialty and
all-breed judge for many clubs around the world, with KC and
other-country credentials, Mr. Lanting since 1966 has lectured on
Gait-and-Structure, Canine Orthopedic Disorders, and other topics, and
has judged in about 30 countries. He has been described by a former OFA
director as the world’s leading non-veterinarian authority on hip
dysplasia. He has lectured at numerous veterinary schools in the USA
and abroad, and is the author of the following “must read” books for
the dog owner (E-mail for curriculum vitae). “Canine HD and Other
Orthopedics Disorders” : This expanded revision is a comprehensive
(nearly 600-page), amply illustrated, annotated, monumental work that
is suitable as a coffee-table book, a reference work for breeders and
veterinarians, and a study adjunct for veterinary students. It is
equally valuable for the owner of any breed. It covers every aspect of
HD and other orthopedic, bone, or spinal disorders, and includes
genetics, diagnostic methods, treatment options, and the role of
environment. Your autographed copy will be mailed from the USA as soon
as the appropriate amount is received and is processed. Pricing: US $68
in the U.S., or ask about mail overseas. Combine orders with “The Total
German Shepherd Dog” by the same author ($50 plus $4 postage). 17 of
the 20 chapters are suitable for owners of any breed. Order both at
once direct from the author, and the postage will be waived.