Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

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Cleft Palate


What is cleft palate?

Cleft palate is a developmental defect in which the midline of the palate fails to close before birth.  The opening can extend forward to separate the incisors and up to the nose, sometimes branching into each nostril.

 How do I know if my dog has cleft palate?

In most cases it will be noticed at birth.  However, if the opening is only in the palate and doesn’t involve the front of the upper jaw or nostrils it might escape notice, though the puppy won’t be able to nurse normally and may be discovered if the breeder looks into the mouth.

What does cleft palate mean for my dog?

Cleft palate puppies have difficulty nursing and risk aspiration pneumonia when milk is inhaled through the open nasal cavity.  Survival rate is poor.  Smaller clefts may improve as the puppy grows.  Surgical correction is possible but expensive.  If the dog survives past puppyhood and does not have an opening from the mouth to the nasal cavity it will probably be fine.  If an opening remains, it will require constant care when feeding to prevent aspiration of food.

How common is cleft palate in Aussies?

It is rare.

Is cleft palate inherited in Aussies?

Probably not.  Cleft palates can occur for a variety of reasons, only some of which are genetic.  If there is no prior history of cleft palate in related dogs it is unlikely to be inherited.  Non-hereditary causes include toxic exposure at a critical point in development or an “accident of development” in which something went wrong for unknown reasons.

The only clearly hereditary cases of cleft palate in Aussies were associated with a syndrome of multiple skeletal anomalies, including cleft palate.  All those dogs were descended from a single female outside the mainstream of the breed.  Few, if any, remain alive today.  In Europe, where someone probably found research papers published on the condition,  it has been referred to as “skeletal lethal.”

What does cleft palate mean for my breeding program?

So long as there is no familial pattern of occurrence, it isn’t a breeding concern.  If it is familial, don’t breed affected dogs, don’t repeat the breeding, and breed all near relatives only to dogs from families where it is not known to occur.