A puppy born with a cleft palate has an internal opening between the nose and mouth. Although cleft palates are more common in certain breeds, they can also occur if the mother dog received certain medications during pregnancy, or consumed excessive amounts of vitamin A. If your dog is pregnant, talk to your vet about the best diet for her during this time.
When puppies are growing in utero, the roof of the mouth should close. When this doesn't occur, it's called congenital cleft palate. (The palate can also be damaged after birth, leading to what's called acquired cleft palate.) The opening can be quite large, severely affecting the puppy, or rather small and relatively inconsequential. Some puppies die after birth, unable to nurse because of the deformity. Less affected puppies may still pass food into their nose and sinuses, ending up with breathing issues or pneumonia. Dogs with mild cleft palates should be fed dry food, as canned food more easily goes into the nose.
If you open the puppy's mouth, you'll see a split in either the soft palate (near the throat) or the roof of his mouth. Besides eating difficulties, puppies with moderate cleft palates might experience constant nasal discharge—including his dinner coming out his nose—stunted growth, and sneezing and coughing. He's quite vulnerable to aspiration pneumonia, resulting from food particles going into the lungs. Aspiration pneumonia often proves fatal.
While any puppy might be born with a cleft palate, the condition appears more often in certain breeds. These include beagles, Chihuahuas, Shetland sheepdogs, Labrador and golden retrievers, cocker spaniels, schnauzers, German shepherds, dachshunds, Brittany spaniels, Staffordshire bull terriers, collies, toy poodles, Norwegian elkhounds and Bernese mountain dogs. All brachycephalic ("short-headed") breeds are also prone. These include the bulldog, Pekingese, shih-tzu and pug.
If the cleft palate is mild, no treatment is necessary. Severe cleft palate requires surgical correction. However, it's not an easy surgery, so vets don't perform it on very young puppies. Until the pup is about 4 months old he'll require a feeding tube for nourishment. Your vet can install a temporary feeding tube on the side of the puppy's neck. After the surgery your puppy still needs feeding through a tube for about a month, until the surgical incision heals. He'll also wear an Elizabethan collar so he won't rub his face and open the incision. After the feeding tube is removed, your puppy eats canned food for several weeks, as dry food can irritate his mouth.