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Cleft Lip & Palate in Puppies: Signs, Causes & Treatment (Vet Answer)

Written by: Dr. Joe Mallat DVM (Veterinarian)

Last Updated on June 14, 2024 by Dogster Team

Newborn puppy with cleft palate

Cleft Lip & Palate in Puppies: Signs, Causes & Treatment (Vet Answer)


Dr. Joe Mallat Photo


Dr. Joe Mallat

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects caused by the incorrect formation of a puppy’s mouth during pregnancy. Similar clefts also occur in human babies. While some clefts can be visualized without any difficulty, others are far less obvious. Similarly, some clefts do not need any treatment at all, while others require corrective surgery. When it comes to clefts in puppies, information is plentiful but can be confusing or hard to decipher.

This article will cover all aspects of cleft lip and palate in puppies, from causes and signs to care and treatment.


What are Cleft Lip & Cleft Palate in Puppies?

Cleft palette in dogs
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A cleft refers to a split, or something that is partially divided into two. Both cleft lip and cleft palate in puppies are considered “congenital” diseases, meaning that they are present at birth, and may arise from either genetic or environmental factors (or both).

A cleft lip is a defect that occurs when the lip does not join properly at birth. A cleft lip may involve the underlying bone or hard palate (roof of the mouth) as well as the lip. You might hear cleft lip referred to as “harelip”, given the resemblance to the face of a hare, but this term is only used colloquially.

A cleft palate is a malformation of the different tissues that make up the palate (roof of the mouth). The palate has two separate regions—the hard palate, which is closer to the nose, and the soft palate, which is further back towards the throat. In most puppies, the left and right sides of the mouth come together and fuse during pregnancy.

In puppies with cleft palate, this process does not occur properly, leaving a hole in the roof of the mouth. Occasionally, this hole connects to the nose as well.

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What Are the Signs of Cleft Lip & Palate?

A dog with a cleft lip looking up the camera
Image Credit: paugarzagarcia, Shutterstock

Signs of cleft lip and palate can be grouped into three categories—signs of cleft lip, signs of cleft palate, and signs affecting the puppy’s ability to thrive.

1. Cleft lip signs

  • Part of the upper lip is missing
  • Part of the upper lip is crooked
  • The nostrils appear abnormal
  • The nose appears connected to the mouth
  • The teeth are clearly visible all the time

2. Cleft palate signs

  • Hole in the roof of the mouth
  • Facial deformity

3. Signs of puppy ill-health

Dogs with cleft lip or palate will show some of the following signs:
  • Difficulty latching onto the nipple or suckling
  • Sneezing and nasal discharge after feeding
  • Milk or snot coming out of the nostrils
  • Coughing, due to breathing food and water into the lungs
  • Poor growth
  • Chronic or repeated infections
  • Lethargy

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Causes of Cleft Lip & Palate in Puppies

Congenital cleft palate occurs due to incomplete fusion of the mouth while the puppy is still a fetus. There are five main reasons:

  1. Genetics. This is the most common cause of clefts in puppies. Purebred dogs and short-faced breeds such as Pugs and Bulldogs are more commonly affected by clefts. This suggests that the vast majority of clefts occur because the mother or father has passed on a gene for the cleft to their puppy, even if the mother and father do not have a cleft themselves.
  2. Trauma. Trauma to the mother during pregnancy can result in a cleft in the newborn puppy.
  3. Nutrition. Though rare, large quantities of dietary vitamin A or insufficient vitamin B9 during pregnancy have been linked to congenital clefts.
  4. Medications. Some medications, such as steroids or aspirin, may be linked to clefts if given during pregnancy.
  5. Viruses. Infection of the mother during pregnancy has in rare cases been linked to clefts.

Note: Puppies born with a cleft palate should never be used for breeding! There is a high chance of them passing on the cleft, or at least the gene for the cleft, to their offspring.

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How Are Cleft Lip & Palate Treated?

There are no home treatments for cleft lip and palate. Minor clefts causing no difficulty eating or swallowing may be left alone, and some of these puppies go on to live full and happy lives. However, for those puppies significantly affected by their cleft, surgery is the only option. Without surgery, puppies are unable to get enough nutrition to survive. They are also prone to developing severe infections, such as pneumonia.

Surgery can be difficult and costly but carries the best prognosis. Complications are possible, and multiple surgeries may be required. Some surgeons may encourage tube-feeding until the puppy is 3 months of age, at which point they are more capable of handling a general anesthetic.

a dog about to undergo surgery
Image Credit: Masarik, Shutterstock

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Can Puppies Have Both Cleft Lip & Cleft Palate?

Yes, some puppies will have both cleft lip and cleft palate at birth. The majority, however, will have one or the other.

How Are Cleft Lip & Palate Diagnosed?

Most clefts can be diagnosed by a veterinarian through direct observation during a physical examination. Some clefts, if they are small and further back in the mouth, may require imaging scans such as CT. X-rays may also be used to check for pneumonia in puppies with a cleft.

What Happens if Clefts Aren’t Treated?

Cleft palates rarely repair themselves. Puppies with untreated clefts can develop infections of the nose and lungs, and these infections can be life-threatening.



Cleft lip and palate are congenital abnormalities, more common in certain breeds of dogs. Other factors during pregnancy may contribute to the formation of a cleft in the newborn puppy. Clefts range in significance from minor aesthetic defects to major, life-threatening disorders.

If you are a dog breeder or new puppy owner, and you are concerned about cleft lip or palate, always contact your veterinarian. Early diagnosis and treatment always improve the chance of a good outcome.

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Featured Image Credit: Hannah Carl, Shutterstock

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