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Vail Daily column: Puppies can have birth defects

Stephen Sheldon, DVM
Pet Talk
Vail, CO Colorado

Since it is puppy season, let’s talk about some of the more common birth defects in dogs.

Birth defects, or congenital defects to get technical, are common in puppies. Many of them are specific or more common in certain breeds of dogs. Some are life threatening but nature usually weeds these out for us as most do not survive to an adoptable age. Regardless, birth defects are one of the more important reasons to take your new puppy to the veterinarian as soon as you get them.

Three of the most common birth defects as shown by surveys are hernias, cryptorchid testicles (retained testicles) and cleft palates. Other common birth defects occur in the heart, eyes, esophagus, nervous system, muscles and bones.

Hernias are defects in the abdominal wall that keep the innards where they are supposed to be: inside. They are common in basset hounds, lhasas, terriers and bulldogs, but are seen in almost all breeds. There are two locations where they occur, either in the groin (inguinal hernia) or the belly button (umbilical hernia). There are two types of hernias, too: reducible and nonreducible. Hernias need to be evaluated before we can determine whether or not they are a risk and need to be corrected. Inguinal hernia almost always need to be corrected ASAP; umbilical hernias can often wait until we spay or neuter your pet. The problem is a piece of bowel can get caught in the hole and twist on itself (called strangulation). Strangulation is not a good thing and can be life-threatening.

Hernias are hereditary so if you are getting a puppy to breed, don’t get one with a hernia!

Retained testicles are those that fail to descend, or drop, into the scrotum. This occurs within 10 days of birth so by the time you get your puppy at eight weeks of age they should have dropped. There are two locations where those crazy hiding testicles may be hanging out: either in the groin or in the abdominal cavity. Those in the groin are easy to remove, those in the abdomen require what we call a ‘testicle hunt’ to find. Testicle hunts are very rewarding for veterinarians but can be frustrating; the hidden gems (great pun but no political agenda here, folks) can be anywhere from near the kidneys to the groin or anywhere in between. Retained testicles should be removed because they stay at a higher body temperature, making them secrete excess hormone (we know that is not good) and can even become cancerous.

Retained testicles are common in toy breeds, boxers, and German shepherds.

Cleft palates are a defect between the oral and nasal cavities and involve the hard and soft palates of the upper jaw, or maxilla. They are common in the brachycephalic, or pushed in face dogs like Bbulldogs, Boston terriers, pugs, and Pekingese. Unfortunately many puppies with cleft palates never make it out of the breeders’ house; they are often put to sleep or fail to thrive (i.e. die; a lovely euphemism, no?). If you do get a puppy with a cleft palate, it will need to be corrected surgically when your pup is strong enough for the operation, usually around 10-12 weeks of age. Until then, you will need to tube feed your pup to keep them strong and also to prevent them from swallowing food into the lungs causing what we call aspiration pneumonia.

Birth defects are the biggest reason for an early veterinary visit IMHO (OMG I’m using text abbreviations professionally, Lord help me). The reason I stress early is that most puppies come with some sort of warranty, and it is my job to advise you of the extent of the problem and also your emotional and financial involvement with a puppy that may need surgery or extensive care. Now is the time to exercise your warranty rights. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh, but it is a reality. In the eyes of the law, puppies are viewed only as property.

Stephen Sheldon, DVM, practices at Gypsum Animal Hospital. He is a past president of the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association and served as chair of the Ethics Committee for 10 years.


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