Congenital cleft palate in horses is an uncommon deformity affecting approximately 0.1-0.2% of the equine population. The condition is a malformation of the soft and sometimes hard palate where the left and right side fail to unite, forming a cleft. It is usually recognized shortly after birth when the foal starts nursing. The most common clinical signs include milk coming out of both nostrils and coughing while nursing. Some foals with smaller defects in the palate are not thrifty and develop recurrent lung infection. Larger palatal defects produce more severe clinical signs and are life-threatening because of aspiration of milk and feed material into the lungs. Therefore, early detection and correction of the condition are important to reduce the severity of aspiration pneumonia.
If you suspect that your foal might have a cleft palate, call your veterinarian immediately. In addition to thorough physical and oral examinations, your veterinarian will need to perform additional diagnostic tests such as endoscopy and x rays. Endoscopy of the throat area is essential to defining the extent of the cleft. X rays of the lungs will help to determine the severity of pneumonia caused by aspiration of feed material. Both the extent of the cleft and the presence of pneumonia are key determinants for prognosis when considering treatment for cleft palate.
The only current treatment for congenital cleft palate is surgical correction of the cleft. This procedure involves either splitting the lower jaw or creating an incision in the throatlatch region to provide access to the defect. The surgery can be technically quite demanding due to the depth of the incision and poor visibility. Complications are common (greater than 85%) following surgical correction and include the following: complete or partial breakdown of the repaired palate, incisional infections, and continued aspiration of feed material. Even successful repairs will often require more than one surge