Congenital Oral Deformities in Dogs

Key takeaways

Congenital oral deformations in dogs are a group of birth defects affecting the lips, teeth, tongue, and/or palate.

  • These are present at birth and may be inherited or caused by other factors during development in the womb
  • Common examples are cleft palate, cleft lip, tooth occlusion deformities, incorrect number of teeth, abnormal enamel, and tongue anomalies
  • Diagnosis is usually at birth from physical examination, but dental issues may not be noticed until later in life
  • Some cases do not significantly affect quality of life, and do not require any treatment at all
  • When required and possible, treatment is usually surgical
  • In general, most congenital oral deformities can be corrected and carry a good prognosis
  • Severe cleft palate defects may be difficult to correct and the prognosis is poor
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A closer look: Congenital Oral Deformities in Dogs

Congenital deformities by definition are present at birth. Some forms are genetically inherited while others are related to developmental abnormalities during gestation.

Symptoms of all of these deformities vary in relation to the severity of the defect. For example, a cleft palate may be minor enough to cause only slight problems with nursing, or be severe enough to lead to death due to aspiration pneumonia and/or starvation.

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Risk factors

These conditions are common and usually not life-threatening with a good prognosis in dogs. In severe cases, cleft palate or lip defects in newborns can lead to inability to suckle, which may lead to fading puppy syndrome and death. Cleft palate or lip can also lead to aspiration pneumonia, which is serious and warrants emergency veterinary attention, often with a poor prognosis.

Non-urgent veterinary care is recommended for occlusal (bite) anomalies which seem to cause pain or difficulty eating. Left untreated, bite abnormalities can lead to dental disease.

Possible causes

Congenital oral deformities are usually inherited from the mother or the father, but can also occur during fetal development. For example, pregnant dogs that ingest too much or not enough of certain nutrients; are being treated with certain medications; are exposed to toxins; or have contracted certain viruses may birth puppies with oral deformations.

Main symptoms

There are sometimes no symptoms at all, other than obvious cosmetic abnormality.

In addition, congenital oral deformities may present with discomfort in or around the mouth, injury to the hard palate or restriction of normal jaw growth, food entrapment and subsequent periodontal disease, plaque and tartar accumulation, and dental cavities.

Note: signs of pneumonia from aspirating food and/or liquid, include:

  • Fever
  • Rapid breathing
  • Abnormal lung sounds

Aspiration pneumonia is life threatening. Dogs showing signs of food or liquid inhalation require urgent veterinary care.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnosis of congenital oral deformities is usually at birth, by physical examination. Anesthesia may be necessary for a complete oral examination. Some defects may not be evident until later in life, such as tooth/bite anomalies. Diagnostic imaging may be used to fully characterize the anomaly and guide treatment.

Steps to Recovery

Some forms of congenital oral deformities require no treatment because there are no adverse effects on the affected pet. Some forms can be corrected surgically, for example, closing the defect in a cleft lip or palate.

Feeding tubes may be necessary in cases of severe cleft palate, especially if multiple surgeries are required. Dental/orthodontic procedures may also be effective in correcting occlusal (bite) and other tooth issues. Unless surgically corrected, these deformities are permanent.

Prognosis is generally good, with the exception of severe, irreducible cleft palate or lip, which can be life-threatening due to the risk of aspiration pneumonia.


Since these deformities are usually inherited, avoiding breeding of dogs with deformities is the best prevention for future generations. Spay or neuter of affected animals is recommended.

Proper vaccination can help avoid viral infections during pregnancy. A veterinary consultation for pregnant dogs is advisable for dietary and medication management to avoid fetal exposure to substances that impact development in the womb.

Are Congenital Oral Deformities in Dogs common?

Oral birth defects are common in dogs.

Typical Treatment

  • Benign neglect
  • Surgery
  • Feeding tube
  • Dental/orthodontic procedures

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