Our boy Zander is a gorgeous male (desexed) Golden Retriever who was delivered by Caesarian section and was born with a cleft palate. He was one of 13 very healthy pups born to registered parents by a registered breeder. Occasionally these things happen even when all care is taken with breeding. He didn’t thrive like the others as you can see in the pic. Zander is the little one on the red mat.
I was given him to rescue at a day old. I researched and read everything I could about these pups as I had never had any experience with them before. I wanted to give him the best chance to live a normal life and I knew it was going to be a long time of sleepless nights and commitment to make this happen.
Zander was very small and could only have a tiny amount of milk by syringe at each feed. I had to feed him hourly at first to be able to get enough milk in for him to survive. Anyone who has been up night after night with an unsettled baby would have an idea of how I felt but knowing his life was in my hands was all I needed to keep me going. His feeds went to 2 hourly then every 3 hrs and eventually he could go a little longer between the night feeds.
During this time he had a couple of hiccups which meant he went backwards and this was a real worry for me. The first was an infection at the umbilical stump and then a few weeks later a tummy upset so he had a few urgent visits to the vet. Life is touch and go with these pups. Things can change at any time and extreme care is needed always, especially when feeding, to try to prevent them aspirating their milk. I was extremely nervous especially at feed times because of this.
Zander grew slowly but steadily. He was so cute, a dear little boy. He was so much smaller than his siblings but he passed through the stages of development at the same time. He opened his eyes began to walk etc. When it was time to wean, Zander was given one tiny piece of dry dog food at a time at each feed until he eventually had a bowl of food and helped himself. He would swallow this food and it was big enough that it didn’t get in through his cleft. Wet food could be aspirated so the dry food was a great way to get more food in and give him better nutrition. He was weaned from milk to water by using a rabbit water bottle hanging up so that he would lift his head to drink. This was so much better as he knew when he would swallow and there was much less chance of him aspirating. Later he learnt to drink water from a bowl by lifting his head after lapping some water …it looked really cute! He has never had any problems with breathing or needed antibiotics for lung issues which is great. He has sneezed milk in the past but that changed once he began drinking the water.
Zander wore a mask outside so that he couldn’t put anything in his mouth which, although sad, gave him the opportunity to explore outdoors freely. I had to keep a close eye on him always until he had his operation. This was performed when he was 5 months old. The surgery on his cleft was long and tedious on an enormous defect and was performed by a wonderfully skilled specialist. Although expensive and not covered by insurance it would change his life. (I rescued Zander and was not looking to get a pup at the time, but feel that if I was, the money saved from not purchasing a puppy could be spent on the operation). The operation involved repair from the front right through to the back and included both the hard and soft palates so it needed time to heal properly. Zander had to remain crated for a number of days. He also had to be tube fed to give the best chance of repair and recovery and he had to wear a t-shirt to prevent him pulling out the tube! He was then only able to have soft food, which he loved, and wasn’t allowed to play with toys for a period either. He was young so he healed really well and there are only a few small separations there now. They have developed due to him growing but this is common. These can easily be fixed in a small operation which I hope to be able to do in the future.
Another problem arose with Zander when he began to limp and it was found that he had elbow dysplasia. This was so upsetting, he had been through so much already. It was unrelated to his cleft palate but another issue that had to be dealt with. This operation was very expensive, but as I had pet insurance for Zander all was covered except for the excess amount. So another time where patience was needed as Zander had to be crated for a long period to let his elbows heal. He was so good and it seems to have made all the difference to his life.
That was our Zander’s first year! Now Zander, a gentle, loyal, very happy, fun loving boy, weighing 29kg really enjoys his life. He had a rough start but love and patience on his part and mine has given him a quality of life. Ideally it would be great to get the final op done on his cleft, as I still need to keep and eye on certain things he does, but now he enjoys discovering in the back garden and romping around with the other dogs or just laying around wherever he chooses.
Cleft pallet pups just need more time than most but the time put in is more than rewarded by the love and loyalty they give back. The special lifelong bond is amazing! So sad to know that most cleft pallet pups are euthanised when I know what wonderful pets they can be.