A cleft palate is an opening or fissure along the roof of the mouth that results when the tissues separating these two cavities do not fuse together properly during embryonic development, usually around the 33rd day of gestation. It can involve the hard palate (the “ridged” part of the roof of the mouth) or the soft palate (at the back of the mouth) or even both at the same time.
Because this occurs most commonly among dogs with shorter heads and faces, it is important for Maltese breeders to check the mouths of each puppy immediately after birth.
Puppies with cleft palates will try to nurse without success. They are unable to form the necessary “seal” in order to suckle. Often the milk will be seen bubbling from the nose since, with cleft palate, the fissure is open into the nasal passages. There also may be sneezing, coughing, gagging and poor weight gain.
It is possible to save a puppy by careful tube feeding until it is either old enough for surgery (very expensive and unfortunately, not always successful) or through a relatively new special feeding regimen of dry food and water only.
Surgery should be performed as soon as possible before secondary complications occur. The success rate is good for minor defects, guarded for more severe defects. Saving a cleft palate puppy requires extensive round-the-clock dedication, and the risk of death from aspiration pneumonia due to the puppy regurgitating its food is high. Further, it is not unusual for a puppy with a cleft palate to have other related health issues later on. Many breeders do the compassionate thing and have the puppy euthanized.
If surgery is not done, there is some anecdotal evidence that a weaned cleft palate puppy can thrive by eating only dry food and water. The dry food helps keep the cleft opening cleaner and there is less chance of aspiration.
Although genetics is considered the primary cause, nutritional deficiencies, viruses, and poisons that affect the mother during pregnancy may also increase the risk of cleft palate. Other possible causes are drugs such as corticosteroids, metronidazole (Flagyl) and certain antibiotics; exposure to infectious disease; herbicides (such as those used on grass) or insecticides; and ingestion of certain plants. Excessive Vitamin A intake is being studied as a possible cause, so review the mother’s dietary history and use of prenatal vitamins. Avoid high levels of liver and fish oil, for example. Breeders must be very careful with their pregnant bitches so the likelihood of exposure to a toxin is low.
Anecdotal evidence shows that giving folic acid before or as soon as the onset of heat starts up until about the 40th day of gestation may decrease the frequency of cleft palates.
Hereditary or environmental, it may be difficult, if ever, to figure out the cause. Regardless, a cleft palate puppy should be treated one way or another and not allowed to starve. A hard decision, but one that breeders often have to face at some point when breeding.