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Home > Cats > Cleft Lip and Palate in Kittens (Vet Answer): Signs, Treatment & Causes 

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

kitten with cleft lip

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Dr. Chantal Villeneuve

Veterinarian, MS BVetMed

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

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Cleft lips and palates are not uncommon in kittens but can be devastating. These abnormalities are usually found right after birth because the kitten struggles to eat and gain weight, easily chokes on food, or can even die suddenly. Surgery is the only ‘cure’ but it does not have a high success rate, especially because it is very difficult to keep a kitten with a cleft palate healthy and happy long enough to have the surgery.

Because cleft lips and palates can be genetic and quietly hide in family trees, difficult decisions must be made concerning breeding the kitten and its family members.

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What Is a Cleft Lip or Palate in Kittens?

A cleft lip or palate occurs when the roof of a kitten’s mouth fails to fuse together while they are developing in the uterus during pregnancy—gestation.

During development, the two sides of the upper mouth develop from the outside edges, in. They are supposed to grow together until they fuse together, forming the hard and soft palate and the upper lip—imagine two elevator doors slowly coming together to snap closed.

If only the front part of the upper mouth, the part that includes the lip and incisive bone (the bone with the front teeth) fails to fuse then a cleft lip forms. If the failure occurs further back and includes the hard and/or soft palate and is called a cleft palate. These two types of abnormality can occur by themselves or together.

What Are the Problems With a Cleft Lip & Palate in Kittens?

  • Difficulties swallowing. The roof of the mouth is needed to swallow properly. Many kittens struggle to properly swallow their milk and quickly lose weight or fail to gain weight properly. A cleft lip usually makes it difficult for them to suckle properly and they lose weight—or more accurately, for a kitten, they fail to gain weight fast enough to keep up with their growing body.
  • Prone to choking. A cleft palate on the other hand creates a hole in the upper mouth that leads to the nasal passages. So, food and water (or more likely mother’s milk) ends up not only in the mouth but up in the nose, where it chokes them or can even immediately drown them.
  • Aspiration pneumonia. This type of pneumonia is called aspiration pneumonia because the kitten has breathed in something (or aspirated) and has developed inflammation that results in liquid and bacteria in the lungs—or pneumonia.

divider-catWhat Are the Signs of a Cleft Lip or Palate in Kittens?

Where and how much of the palate is cleft determines how much and how quickly a kitten suffers. A cleft lip that only involves the upper lip will probably result in a kitten who struggles to suckle and gain weight, whereas a kitten with a cleft palate will not be able to eat without also inhaling milk which is very dangerous and deadly.

Signs of a Cleft Lip or Palate in Cats:

  • Visual abnormalities of the upper lip
  • Failure to gain weight
  • Dribbling out of the nose
  • Struggling to breathe
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Struggling to eat or suckle
  • Death
kitten with a birth defect cleft lip
Image By: Rudak Hanna, Shutterstock

What Are the Causes of Cleft Lip or Palate in Kittens?

  • An inherited abnormal trait. It is a genetic trait that can be passed from both parents to their offspring. And if one kitten in a litter has it, its siblings could also have the genes. This has happened most in the Siamese breed. But it can pop up occasionally in other breeds. When it does happen, it is important to remember that genetics are involved and to consider the ethics of breeding that line of genetics into the population,
  • Nutritional. A diet with too much vitamin A during pregnancy can predispose a cat to give birth to kittens with cleft palates. Diets that have a lot of liver are often high in vitamin A. And while the mechanisms for this result are not well understood the association between vitamin A and cleft palates is established. This is why it is particularly important to double-check your cat’s diet during pregnancy—especially with homemade raw diets.
  • Medications. Certain medications cause developmental abnormalities during pregnancy. Corticosteroids, metronidazole (a common antibiotic), and griseofulvin (a less common antifungal) are some of the more famous culprits. It is important to double-check with your vet before giving pregnant cats medications, even if they have had them before.

How Do I Care for a Kitten With a Cleft Lip or Palate?

Sadly, many kittens with severe cleft palates have to be humanely euthanized immediately. They cannot eat and so are constantly starving, and when they do eat, they inhale milk which is not only painful but develops into life-threatening pneumonia. Trying to nurse them along usually results in prolonged suffering and pain.

In less severe cases of cleft lips or palates, surgery might be an option. But there is a high chance of surgical complications and there is still a poor prognosis for survival.

Here are some issues surrounding the surgery:
  • The kitten needs to be at least 12 weeks or older but keeping the kitten alive and healthy for four months is very difficult. Most of the time they will need to be tube fed but are still likely to develop aspiration pneumonia.
  • The surgery often fails to heal properly. Perhaps the two parts of the palate fail to biologically fuse together even after being stitched together, perhaps because of infection. Either way, the suture line holding the palate together falls apart, surgeons call this dehiscence.
  • Even after surgery, they are still likely to develop pneumonia, continue to lose weight, and struggle with runny noses, called sinusitis.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Should the parents of the kitten or any of its siblings be bred?

Since a kitten has a cleft lip or palate both parents must have the genes for cleft palates even if they don’t have them themselves. Furthermore, any one of the kitten’s litter mates could also have the genes.

Breeding anyone in the family could be spreading this devastating trait in the population. But if this family has other desirable traits or is particularly valuable for breeding standards this can become a difficult decision to make. Not to mention the emotional attachments and love most breeders have for their family of cats.

How much is the surgery for cleft lips or palates?

This is a hard question to answer because every vet hospital will have different price points. But also, and more importantly, usually it is not just the surgery that is a major cost. The continued upkeep and maintenance before and after surgery can easily double and triple the cost of surgery without any way of estimating it.

Keeping a kitten with a cleft lip or palate healthy for the months leading up to surgery will be expensive, emotional, and time-consuming. Then afterward the maintenance post-surgery can add up. And that’s assuming everything goes perfectly with the surgery, but often things go wrong, and another surgery is needed, or two. Double and tripling the costs again. Not to mention the time and emotional costs.

How do you feed a kitten with a cleft palate?

Most kittens with a cleft palate will need to be tube fed to survive long enough for surgery. A tube is placed down their throat, bypassing the cleft palate. It can be an effective means of getting food in the stomach but is still a dangerous way to feed. It’s easy to accidentally put the tube into the lungs instead of the stomach. It’s easy not to push the tube down far enough, or to overfill the stomach so milk comes back up and chokes the kitten. It causes inflammation of the throat and must be done by someone who is very skilled.

kitten getting fed via tube
Image By: Vikentiy Elizarov, Shutterstock

Can a cleft palate heal itself?

Cleft palates cannot heal themselves. Once a kitten is born, they are beyond the developmental age for the fusing of the palates, and they do not have the genes that tell their body to fuse the palates together.

What to expect at the vet office?

Expect to have a difficult conversation. It will likely include humane euthanasia, months of intensive treatment, an invasive surgery, and the ethics of breeding the kitten’s family members. If you do elect surgical correction do not be surprised if your vet insists on spaying or neutering the kitten at the same time.

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Conclusion

When the tissue at the roof of the mouth fails to fuse together during gestation it creates a cleft in the palate or lips which can have devastating results for kittens, who struggle to eat and choke on their mother’s milk. This developmental abnormality is usually caused by genetics but can also be caused by inappropriate nutrition or medications during pregnancy.

Difficult decisions regarding the kitten’s life and its family’s progeny arise when a kitten is born with a cleft palate, but ensuring every kitten has the happiest healthiest life it can is always the most important thing.

Sources
  • Münnich, A. (2022). Fading kitten syndrome: factors predisposing to ‘faders’ and treatment options. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 24(3), 243-256.
  • The Merck veterinary manual. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck & Co., Inc. 2023

Featured Image Credit: Rudak Hanna, Shutterstock

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