A congenital malformation is a physical defect that your pet is born with (congenital). Some birth defects are so severe that the puppy or kitten dies in the uterus before it is even born. But a congenital malformation is not a death sentence and a defect can be anything from fatal to unnoticeable. Pets can have many of the same birth defects as humans. In this article we will discuss one of the most common congenital malformations in pets, the cleft palate.
What causes a congenital malformation? Like most things, it’s complicated. Many congenital defects are inherited from the mother or father, which is why some defects are more common in certain breeds. Organizations that control standards for different breeds are attempting to exclusively breed animals with no family history of genetic defects.
Congenital malformations can also be caused by a teratogen. A teratogen is any chemical, drug, or hormone that will disrupt the normal development of a puppy or kitten in the uterus. Teratogens can be anything from household chemicals, to drugs that are prescribed for a medical problem when you didn’t know your pet was pregnant. Sometimes it is unclear whether the congenital malformation is genetic, or is a result of a teratogen or even a virus.
Cleft palate is one of the more common congenital malformations in cats and dogs. The palate is the division between the nasal (nose) cavity and the oral cavity. During development, if the palate doesn’t close properly, the puppy or kitten can be born with a hole (cleft) in the palate. This means that there is hole connecting the nasal and oral cavities. Cleft palate can also be associated with cleft lip (sometimes called ‘hare lip’) in humans. This is when the right and left sides of the upper lip do not fuse during development. Cleft lip is not as common as cleft palate, and is not such a big problem. Cleft palate however, depending on how big the hole is, can cause severe problems for a kitten or puppy.
A cleft palate can cause the puppy or kitten to breathe in some milk as it nurses. This can cause a fatal pneumonia. Most pets with cleft palate are identified at birth, as part of their routine physical exam. This is a condition that requires immediate attention. There is a procedure that surgically fixes cleft palate. It is much more successful on pets that only have a small hole in the palate. The animal will also commonly have to go to surgery more than once in order to properly fix this condition. Once the palate is fixed however, the pet should not have any more problems and will go on to live a normal life.
Some kittens and puppies with cleft palate have to be euthanized. This could be because the cleft palate is so severe that it would be impossible to fix. Other times, the owner cannot afford to spend the money to fix the palate. Also, some pets with cleft palate have other congenital malformations. These can include severe, fatal organ defects. In this case, even if the palate was surgically fixed, the animal would still die from its other problems.
Congenital malformations are fairly common and although some are serious others like polydactyly (extra toes) are fairly harmless. Even though extra toes are something that humans surely fuss about, in pet cats and dogs it isn’t really that big a deal. The serious congenital defects are really the ones that we have to worry about and through proper breeding programs and avoiding teratogens, we can decrease their frequency.
By Ashley O’Driscoll – Pets.ca writer