Dogs with cleft palates add to knowledge of condition in children

When a dog is born with a cleft palate, repairing the birth defect--a hole, basically, in the mouth--can be challenging, particularly when there is no soft tissue near it that can be used to plug the hole. Now, veterinarians at Michigan State University are adapting a procedure commonly used in children to dogs, and taking what they learn to improve the understanding of the birth defect in both dogs and people.

Under the leadership of John Girotto, director of craniofacial surgery at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI, surgeons recently performed a technique on a mixed-breed dog named Mr. Moo that involved using soft tissue from inside the cheek to repair the cleft palate. The dog, which previously had to be fed through a tube, made a complete recovery, according to the Associated Press.

Now Girotto is working with MSU's veterinarians and geneticists to research possible causes of the birth defect in dogs. They believe that if they identify genetic characteristics of cleft palate, the insight they gain could lead to better understanding of a problem that occurs all too often in children.

"One in 700 children will be born with either a cleft lip or a cleft palate, which makes it a fairly common birth defect," Girotto told the AP. There are no statistics on the birth defect in dogs, but it is known to occur most frequently in purebreds and flat-nosed breeds, according to the AP.

Dogs are considered close models of other conditions that affect children, too, most notably osteosarcoma. Among the companies that are working on osteosarcoma treatments in dogs and children is Regeneus, which has pioneered a vaccine that's built from each patient's own tumor cells.

Improving surgical techniques in dogs with cleft palates will greatly improve the prognosis for pets born with the defect. As it stands now, many dogs with cleft palate are euthanized because of the difficulties involved in correcting the defect, which normally requires two surgeries.

Girotto says he hopes to be able to offer the procedure performed on Mr. Moo to breeders who might otherwise not want to keep puppies born with cleft palates. His goal is to repair the defect and offer training to turn his patients into therapy dogs for children having the same procedure.

- here's the AP story