The Basics About Cleft Palate in Cats

Lisa Selvaggio
by Lisa Selvaggio
Cats can be born with cleft palates. But even with this birth defect, cats with cleft palates can live happy, normal lives.

There are many conditions and ailments that can affect cats just like they can affect people. But did you know that, like humans, cats can also be born with a cleft palate? It’s true! And if you have experience working with cats, such as through a rescue group, you might have already met a kitty with a cleft palate.

What does it mean when a cat has a cleft palate? Is it something serious? Are there treatments available? And what could the quality of life be for a cat with a cleft palate? These are just some of the many questions you might have regarding this problem.

Keep reading to access a bit of information about this condition, and be sure to consult with a vet to get personalized advice and guidance if you are looking after a pet with a cleft palate, as providing the best care can make a world of difference.

What Is a Cleft Palate?

A cleft palate can be a congenital birth defect, which means a kitten would be born with it. However, there can also be instances when the palate is damaged as a result of trauma even though a cat was born with a normal palate.

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Basically, this is an opening in the roof of the mouth (a.k.a. the palate). It results when the two sides of the palate don’t fuse together while the fetus is developing. The kitten is left with an opening, in the form of a hole or a split, between the mouth and the nasal passages.

The cleft could be rather small or it could end up extending across the entire palate. It could also affect the hard palate, soft palate, or both. This is why working with a veterinarian who knows how to treat cleft palates is so important. With a proper diagnosis, you will know how severe the problem is and what needs to be done to help ensure a kitten will be able to survive until the palate can be repaired.

What Are the Symptoms of a Cleft Palate?

Unlike a cleft lip—which creates more obvious symptoms because it involves the front of the palate and the lip, causing the teeth, nose, and lips to be divided—the signs of a cleft palate may not be as obvious when the damage is further back in the cat’s mouth.

For this reason, keeping an eye out for any symptoms in a kitten that you’re caring for is key. Once you notice that something is wrong, you can contact a veterinarian without hesitation before the problem escalates.

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Some of the symptoms that might occur as a result of a cleft palate include:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Respiratory difficulty
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Abnormal breathing sounds
  • Difficulty nursing
  • Milk, or milky bubbles, passing through and out of the nose while nursing
  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Chronic sinus infections
  • Slow growth or failure to thrive

Many of these symptoms might also occur with a variety of other conditions that can affect a cat, so you might not think that a cleft palate is to blame at first. Again, speaking with a veterinarian and having your kitty examined as soon as possible can help you get the answers you need.

Also, when a kitten has a cleft palate, she may not be able to eat properly, especially if there is a large opening. And, as you probably guessed, without proper nutrition, the pet will likely be at risk of being unable to grow and thrive, and might also end up developing other problems, such as pneumonia or sinus infections.

What Causes a Cleft Palate, and How Common Is It?

A cleft palate is not something you hear about too often in cats. However, certain feline breeds may be more susceptible to being born with a cleft palate. Those breeds include Persian, Ragdoll, Siamese, Savannah, Ocicat, and Norwegian Forest Cat. Also, more female kittens tend to be affected than male kittens.

In addition to being inherited, experts have theorized that other factors might also be to blame. For example, a cleft palate might be the result of a pregnant cat being exposed to teratogenic chemicals, which could interfere with the normal development of embryos, or excessive amounts of vitamin A and vitamin D.

How Can a Cleft Palate Be Treated?

A veterinarian will be able to check a kitten’s oral cavity and see if a cleft palate is present. Anesthesia might be necessary to be able to carefully examine the entire mouth, and x-rays may be used to check if pneumonia has developed as well. Once your vet knows the extent of the problem, the appropriate solution(s) can be recommended, and you might find that fixing this issue isn’t as complicated as you thought.

Surgery is an option, but it could be difficult in small kittens. In the meantime, a long nipple or an oral feeding tube may be recommended to help a kitten get the nutrition necessary to grow and survive. A vet might also recommend an esophagostomy tube to ensure a cat with a cleft palate can receive the right nutrition. It’s important to learn how to use a feeding tube correctly and safely, so ask plenty of questions to be sure you feel comfortable with the process.

As a kitten grows, the cleft may become smaller, the oral cavity can become bigger, and surgery might be easier once the kitten is 3 to 4 months old. Nevertheless, multiple surgeries might be necessary to totally fix the palate.

Unfortunately, if a cleft palate is severe and irreparable, euthanasia might be the only option. However, there are some amazing stories out there about special needs kitties, so it may be worth pursuing multiple opinions from veterinary experts who have experience with cleft palates, as you might be surprised by what’s possible in terms of treatments and care.

Don’t Give Up on a Kitten with a Cleft Palate

Although it might feel overwhelming to care for a kitten with a cleft palate, there is hope. It starts with finding the right veterinarian who can help you through the process of caring for a kitty with this problem, and then treating it as best as possible.

Once you find the right veterinary team, work closely with them to be sure you’ll be able to provide your pet with the proper care, nutrition, and treatments. The right strategy may help your kitten thrive and grow up to be just like any other cat.

Lisa Selvaggio
Lisa Selvaggio

Lisa Selvaggio is a freelance writer and editor, and our resident cats-pert, with certifications in pet nutrition and pet first aid. She enjoys producing content that helps people understand animals better so they can give their pets a safe and happy home.

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