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Key takeaways

Cleft palate and/or lip is common in dogs and occurs when the tissues that make up the lip and/or palate do not join normally during development in the womb, leaving a defect.

  • This deformity is usually inherited, but may be caused by a pregnant dog’s exposure to toxins or other agents that are harmful to the developing embryo(s)
  • In rare cases, a cleft lip/palate is acquired due to injury
  • The severity of cleft palate ranges from a small hole or slit to large deformation involving both hard and soft palates, sometimes creating empty space between the mouth and nasal passages
  • Mild cases require little, if any treatment
  • In more severe cases, treatment is usually surgical, and can lead to complications
  • Prognosis for severe cleft lip/palate is poor, even with surgery
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A closer look: Cleft Palate or Lip in Dogs

Cleft lip and palate are common in dogs. In cases where the defect (cleft) is small, there may only be a cosmetic concern. Larger clefts require urgent medical attention as they can lead to inhalation of food during eating which can cause aspiration pneumonia, a condition that is often life threatening.

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Risk factors

Commonly, dogs with cleft palate develop aspiration pneumonia.

Puppies with severe cleft palates may show signs like poor latching, insufficient feeding, and lack of weight gain. Left untreated, these puppies may fail to thrive and die. In extreme cases, euthanasia is the only humane option.

Possible causes

These disorders are usually inherited, but can also occur from exposure to toxins (teratogens) or viral infections during fetal development, nutritional imbalances in the mother, or as a result of injury (acquired clefts).

Main symptoms

Cleft lip or palate is self evident. The appearance may include any or all of the following characteristics:

  • Visible division in the upper lip
  • Visible “hole” in the roof of the mouth (hard palate, soft palate, or both)
  • Difficulty suckling
  • Milk bubbling from nose while nursing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Cough
  • Poor growth/lack of weight gain

Testing and diagnosis

Cleft lip and palate are diagnosed by physical exam. Often these defects are obvious, but in some cases of cleft palate, the hole may be small or near the throat which can only be detected by an in-depth oral exam, sometimes requiring anesthesia.

Steps to Recovery

In mild cases, there may be no treatment required. In most cases, the treatment is surgical correction. In severe cases, puppies are often euthanized due to poor prognosis.

Unless surgically corrected, these deformities are permanent. Prognosis varies depending on the size of the defect, as well as the success of surgical repair. Prognosis is generally good with successful treatment. Without treatment, or in severe cases, prognosis is poor.


Preventative measures include not breeding dogs that have these defects. Proper vaccination of dogs prior to breeding helps prevent viral infections during pregnancy. Veterinary consultation is warranted for pregnant dogs on medications, as some can cause defects.

Is Cleft Palate or Lip in Dogs common?

Cleft lip and palate are common in dogs, with brachycephalic breeds over-represented in statistical incidence reporting.

Typical Treatment

  • Benign neglect
  • Surgery
  • Antibiotic therapy
  • Supportive care


Jacqueline Brister, DVM - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Dr. Mike Paul, DVM - Writing for Pet Health Network
Jennifer N. Roberts, DVM, DACT - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Dr. Patricia Khuly - Writing for PetPlace

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