Cleft Palate or Lip in Cats

Key Takeaways

Cleft palate or lip in cats describes a defect in the roof of the mouth from the upper lip to the hard or soft palate, caused by a genetic deformity or injury. 

• In severe cases both the lip and palate are affected and the entire hard and soft palates are almost absent

• Poor weight gain, lethargy, struggling to latch, milk coming out of the nose, and pneumonia are common symptoms in newborn kittens

• Older cats often have a history of facial injury and symptoms of pneumonia including increased respiratory rate and effort, coughing, sneezing, and lethargy

• Diagnosis involves physical examination, blood work, and diagnostic imaging

• Treatment addresses secondary conditions prior to surgical repair

• Prognosis with surgery is good, but kittens that are unable to feed, or cases with severe or recurrent pneumonia, carry a poor prognosis

• Many cases are euthanized at birth

A Closer Look: What is Cleft Palate or Lip in Cats?

Cleft palate/lip is a serious condition, especially in newborn kittens. The severity varies depending on the location and size of the defect. Small defects are sometimes well tolerated while medium to large defects prevent the ability to latch onto the nipple and suckle correctly. Any fluid or food entering the mouth can enter the nose and airways resulting in aspiration pneumonia.

Clefts may be large or small, unilateral or bilateral, and affect any one or all three structures of the roof of the mouth: 

• The upper lip

• The hard palate

• The soft palate

A cleft lip is easily identified as an asymmetrical deformity of the lip. A cleft palate is visible as a dark crack or split in the normally pink surrounding tissue inside the mouth. 

Identification of cleft lip/palate warrants prompt veterinary attention. The deformity in the face creates a conduit, sometimes referred to as a “communication” between the oral and sinus cavities. This impedes the ability to effectively swallow and creates ideal conditions for infection to develop. In severe cases, infection can develop into aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia is an emergency.

Risk Factors

Cleft palate or lip is usually a genetic deformity with no known cause. Pregnant cats under certain supplementation regimens may be more at risk of having kittens with facial deformities. Unaltered outdoor cats may be at higher risk of facial injury due to fighting, exposure to wild animals, and interaction with hazardous environments. 

Cases often present with concurrent aspiration pneumonia. Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia include:

CoughingRapid breathingDifficulty breathing

Pale gumsBlue gums • Poor appetite

Aspiration pneumonia is a medical emergency requiring urgent medical care.

Possible Causes

Cleft lip/palate is normally a genetic condition in kittens.

Some medication use such as steroids and vitamin A supplementation in pregnant queens are associated with the development of cleft palate/lip in kittens.

Older cats sometimes develop a cleft palate as a result of injury, such as being hit by a car or being shocked when biting through an electrical cord.

Main Symptoms

Cleft lip or palate is usually self evident.

Additional symptoms of cleft palate/lip  in kittens include:

• Poor weight gain

• Weakness

• Inability to latch 

• Milk coming out of the nostrils

• Persistent nasal discharge

Rapid breathing

Difficulty breathing

In adult cats, additional symptoms include

• Persistent nasal discharge


• Weakness

• Increased breathing rate and effort

• Poor appetite

Testing and Diagnosis

Further investigation of cleft lip/palate involves:

• Physical examination

• Diagnostic imaging

• Blood work in the case of aspiration pneumonia

Steps to Recovery

Treatment options include:

• Initial treatment of symptoms of pneumonia, including antibiotics and in severe cases, supplemental oxygen.

• Bottle or tube feeding may be utilized as a temporary measure

• Surgical correction of cleft lip/palate: in kittens an initial, temporary repair is attempted at 6 weeks old. Definitive correction is performed at approximately 4 months old

Symptoms persist until the defect is surgically closed. Prognosis following successful surgery is good, but some affected kittens do not live to 6 weeks old, or may be too weak to survive surgery due to poor body condition. Newborn kittens identified with a cleft palate/lip are often euthanized shortly after birth.

Surgery has a variable success rate due to a moderate rate of wound complications. Cases that heal well have a fair prognosis.


Cleft lip/palate has a genetic component. Cats with the condition should not be bred, and cats that produce kittens with cleft palate/lip should not be bred again.

Some medications are associated with causing cleft palate/lip when given to pregnant cats. These medications, such as steroids and vitamin A, may increase the risk of cleft palate/lip and should be avoided during pregnancy.

Is Cleft Palate or Lip Common in Cats?

This deformity is uncommon, particularly acquired clefts in adult cats.

Typical Treatment

Treatment options include:

• Oxygen

• Antibiotics 

• Surgical correction of cleft lip/palate

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