What is Cleft Palate?
Kittens with cleft palate will need surgery to have a chance at recovery. Depending on the extent of the condition, prognosis ranges from good to guarded. Treatment requires a significant emotional and financial commitment, and pet owners often choose to have affected kittens humanely euthanized.
Cleft palate is a birth defect that occurs when the roof of the mouth (palate) fails to properly fuse together and leaves a space between the mouth and the nasal-sinus cavity. This defect can affect the hard, bony portion of the palate, the soft flexible area that is used for swallowing, or both. The condition occurs during gestation and is usually fairly obvious at or soon after birth. Left untreated, it is unlikely that an affected kitten will survive.
Symptoms of Cleft Palate in Cats
Kittens with cleft palate will exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:
- Running nose
- Difficulty nursing
- Milky discharge from nose when eating
- Difficulty breathing
- Weight Loss
- Slow Growth
- Decreased Appetite
- Chronic sinus infections
- Aspiration pneumonia
Causes of Cleft Palate in Cats
Cleft palate is usually an inherited congenital disorder. It’s more likely to occur in purebred cats and is commonly found in Siamese, Persian and Savannah breeds. The condition occurs in female cats more often than males.
Exposure of a pregnant cat to certain chemicals, cortisone, medications, or excessive intake of vitamins A and D has also been linked to the development of cleft palate in embryos.
Diagnosis of Cleft Palate in Cats
When kittens are born, the mouth should be checked for normal development as part of an initial examination. If a defect is not noticed at that time, pet owners may soon see that affected kittens have difficulty eating and may blow milk bubbles out of the nose when nursing. This warrants a prompt visit to the veterinarian as pneumonia and death may occur.
A vet will perform a thorough physical examination to diagnose cleft palate. Deformities of the front palate are easy to see, but if the cleft is further back in the mouth it can be more difficult to diagnose. Anesthesia may be needed to complete this examination. X-rays may also be ordered to check for pneumonia. Kittens will also need to be examined for the presence of other diseases or heart abnormalities.
Treatment of Cleft Palate in Cats
Multiple surgeries are often necessary to repair cleft palate in kittens. It is standard practice to wait until the kitten has reached three to four months of age before surgery is performed. This allows the oral cavity to grow and the size of the cleft to shrink. Advanced knowledge is required to surgically correct cleft palate, and surgery should only be performed by an experienced veterinarian. The complexity of the surgery will depend on the extent of the cleft. Larger clefts may require the use of tissue grafts or dental hardware. It is possible that the cleft may reopen after surgery and the cat may continue to have nasal problems. Because kittens with cleft palate are likely to be underweight and malnourished, there are additional risks associated with the necessary anesthesia.
From birth until the kitten is old enough to undergo surgery, special feeding techniques will be required. It may be possible to feed with a long nipple that bypasses the cleft area. More often, a feeding tube is needed. It is fairly easy for owners to learn how to insert the tube prior to each meal, or the vet may prefer to place a tube in the side of the neck. The kitten will need to be fed every two hours around the clock. Water is usually provided using an overhead dispenser.
It is common for kittens with this disorder to develop pneumonia from inhaling milk while eating. This must be quickly identified and treated as it can be life-threatening. It is also recommended that cats with cleft palate be spayed or neutered to avoid unintentionally passing the condition on to future generations.
Recovery of Cleft Palate in Cats
Following surgery, the kitten will be prescribed pain-management medications and will be given a cone-shaped E-collar to prevent injury or irritation. It is likely that the kitten will need to stay at the veterinary hospital for one or two days to ensure that it is stabilized and does not have respiratory difficulties. Once the kitten comes home, owners will need to make sure that the cone remains in place for one to two weeks. Antibiotics may be prescribed if the kitten has a nasal infection or pneumonia. Cats that are in pain tend to hide, so owners will need to watch them carefully and consult the vet regarding unusual behavior.
The soft palate may be swollen after surgery, resulting in breathing problems or snoring. This will usually resolve on its own. The cat will need to be fed soft, blended food either by mouth or with a feeding tube for several weeks. Hard food or toys should be avoided for at least a month. Sutures used in surgery will be absorbable so removal will not be necessary, but the veterinarian will want to see the kitten for follow-up appointments to ensure proper healing.