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Soft Palate Disorders in Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Trout

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Soft palate disorders are usually congenital defects of the fleshy tissue at the back of the throat that separates the oral and nasal cavities. The most common disorders are a defect or "cleft" in the palate or an elongation of the palate. The soft palate can be traumatized and lacerated, such as following a penetrating stick injury.

Puppies born with palate defects, as in the case of cleft palate, may have problems early on in their development. Dogs with elongated palates frequently do not have clinical signs until 2 or 3 years of age.

Cleft soft palate and elongated soft palate are predominantly seen in brachycephalic, short-faced breeds of dog such as English bulldogs, Boston terriers and pugs. There is no sex predilection.

Untreated cleft soft palate can cause difficulty nursing, failure to thrive, pneumonia and death. Untreated elongated soft palate causes increased airway noise, difficulty breathing when excited and in hot weather, and secondary upper airway diseases such as laryngeal collapse.

What to Watch For

  • Puppies that dribble milk from their noses when feeding
  • Coughing and gagging
  • Thin and poorly nourished pups
  • Excitable young brachycephalic dogs with lots of airway noise emanating from the back of their throat, as though they are gagging

    Diagnosis

  • The diagnosis of a cleft soft palate is usually made from the history; information about the dog's age, sex and breed (signalment); and physical examination. A defect exists between the two sides of the palate leading to a split, which often involves the hard palate, the bony separation between mouth and nose.

  • Anesthesia or sedation may be necessary to visualize the tissues in a young squirming puppy.

  • The diagnosis of an elongated soft palate is made from the history, signalment and physical examination; thorough visualization of the soft palate almost always requires anesthesia.

  • In cases of traumatic injury to the soft palate, a history of running onto, or chasing a stick is most common, together with a sudden onset of oral tenderness, reluctance to eat or drink and bleeding from the mouth. Anesthesia can be most helpful to visualize the damaged region of the palate.

  • Chest X-rays are useful in newborn puppies to assess for pneumonia, and, in older dogs with elongated palates, to assess for concurrent diseases such as a narrowed trachea and heart abnormalities.

  • There are no blood abnormalities specific for soft palate disorders.

    Treatment

  • Young puppies with a diagnosis of cleft soft palate should be tube fed until at least three months of age before undergoing corrective surgery to close the defect.

  • Young dogs with elongated soft palates should be treated surgically between 4 and 24 months of age, by shortening the palate to a more normal length. This can be achieved using a scalpel or a laser.

  • Traumatic injuries to the palate should be repaired shortly after the injury, ensuring that any perforating material is not left behind in the throat or neck to cause future problems.

    Home Care

  • Whatever the nature of the surgery on your pet's soft palate, your animal will have been closely monitored for respiratory difficulty in the immediate postoperative period. Your pet will probably stay at your veterinary hospital for a day or two after the procedure.

  • Once at home your dog should be kept quiet and rested, avoiding excitement and should be watched closely when eating or drinking. Small, easily digested food should be offered initially. Avoid chew toys and rawhide.

  • All sutures used at the time of surgery will be absorbable, so suture removal will not be necessary. Your veterinarian may suggest you return some two weeks after the procedure for a check-up.

    Preventative Care

  • Since cleft soft palate is a congenital problem, it is usually detected by breeders, and the sire and dam should be avoided in a breeding program.

  • Elongated soft palate is seen in slightly older animals and is a common problem in certain brachycephalic dogs. When choosing these breeds, dog owners should be aware of this disorder and how early surgical intervention can minimize future respiratory disorders later on.

  • Avoid throwing sharp objects for your dog to chase and catch; use a ball or a Frisbee instead.

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