Cleft Palate in Cats
Cleft palate in cats is a condition that results from the failure of the roof of the mouth (hard and soft palates) to close during normal embryological development, thereby leaving a “cleft” (or hole) in the roof of the mouth.
The result is a kitten whose oral cavity communicates with their nasal passages. This leads to problems eating, swallowing, and receiving enough nutrition, but has respiratory implications as well.
While environmental factors during gestation may theoretically yield cleft palates, this is generally regarded as an inherited condition. As such, purebred pets are more likely to suffer these defects.
What to Watch For
A cleft palate typically looks like what it sounds like: a hole in the roof of the mouth. That hole may be larger or smaller and it may vary in location (closer to the front or back of the mouth), but most are readily identifiable at birth. Some cleft palate defects may extend so far forward as to affect the lip as well.
If the presence of a cleft palate isn’t identified by visual inspection of the cats’ individual oral cavities immediately after birth, the most typical sign that one or more pups in the litter may have a cleft palate involves difficulty suckling and swallowing.
Coughing, gagging, and milk bubbling from pups’ noses is typical of cleft palate defects, as is sneezing and snorting. Other signs (usually in less obvious defects) may include failure of a pup to grow normally, a sudden onset of pneumonia (typically from aspiration), or sudden death.
Diagnosis of Cleft Palate in Cats
Diagnosis of a cleft palate is based on the history and largely the physical examination which reveals a hole in the roof of the mouth.
Treatment of Cleft Palate in Cats
Sadly, many cleft palate kittens are euthanized immediately after their defects are detected. If handled with sufficient care and diligence, however, some kittens will survive.
- If elected, treatment of cleft palate depends largely on the size and location of the defect, and the degree to which the affected kitten is currently affected (some kittens may already suffer from pneumonia or malnutrition).
- Bottle or tube feeding small quantities of milk every two hours is a typical recommendation for neonates. Older kittens may be transitioned to solid foods as early as four weeks of age.
- Assuming no serious complications ensue and kittens are healthy enough, surgical correction may be advisable after four weeks of age. Each patient’s individual health concerns and palatal defect details will inform the ideal timing of surgery and the technique elected. Several surgical procedures may be necessary as these cats grow and their palates expand.
- For this reason, as well as for reasons related to anesthetic risk, surgery is considered a last resort best undertaken later in puppyhood, when the palate is closer to its adult size.
Note: Cleft palate surgeries have historically suffered a low success rate. When performed by a board-certified surgeon or board-certified veterinary dentist, however, kittens tend to enjoy a far higher rate of success.
It’s important to note, however, that even after successful surgical correction, long-term complications as a result of the cleft palate defect are possible, even likely. These dogs are at higher risk of upper respiratory infections. Some will suffer a chronic nasal discharge that may or may not be definitively treatable.
Veterinary Cost Associated with Cleft Palate
The veterinary cost of a cleft palate depends on the severity of the defect, the skill and diligence of the human caretakers, and the need for surgical correction. If surgery is not deemed necessary and no complications arise, few veterinary costs will be incurred.
If surgical treatment is deemed advisable, expenses can run to $5,000 or even higher, especially if a board-certified surgeon or board-certified veterinary dentist is elected to perform the repair.
Long-term complications of cleft palate defects significant enough to require surgery will almost certainly occasion the need for follow-up veterinary care. These future expenses should not be ignored by prospective owners.