Squirrel gets a new lease on life after cleft palate surgery

Squirrel, a 2 year old bully mix, had an unusual problem.

Squirrel, a 2 year old bully mix
Princess Squirrel

She was struggling with eating and drinking on her own, as well as playing and chewing on toys.

Thick, white mucus would build up and make it hard for her to swallow or breathe through her nose.

Because of that, it was difficult for her to gain weight.

This is how she looked when she was first adopted.

Squirrel as a pup

Her foster explained: “She is choking & sneezing food and mucus out her nose every day, anytime she moves around, plays or chews on toys.”

“We almost lost her a few times the first year,” said her foster. “So she is a fighter for sure. She is a spunky little thing loving life!”

Her diagnosis? A cleft palate.

This means that there was a split in the roof of the mouth (similarly, a cleft lip is a split in the lip).

That split allowed food and water to go up in the nasal passages, causing difficulty breathing and constant infections.

That also meant that she could not get the proper nutrition her body needed to grow properly.

This is the reason why a puppy (or a kitten) with a cleft palate is typically the runt of the litter.

Now, a bit of anatomy. When you touch the roof of your mouth, it is firm because there is bone behind it. You are touching your “hard” palate.


The bone then disappears in the back of the mouth, so that part of the palate is called the “soft” palate.

Based on preop pictures, Squirrel clearly had a cleft of the hard palate.

The surprise came when we put her under anesthesia. A more thorough exam revealed a cleft in 100% of the roof of the mouth. So little Squirrel had a cleft of the hard palate and the soft palate.

In all of the pictures of the mouth below, Squirrel is on her back, and you see the inside of the roof of the mouth.


Surgery entailed stealing tissue from Peter to give to Paul.


We created a “flap” by using healthy tissue from each side of the roof of the mouth to cover the defect or split in the middle.

In the end, we were able to cover the entire defect in the hard and the soft palate.

During the surgery

Squirrel went home safely the day of surgery.

She had to be kept quiet and away from chew toys and hard food for 3 weeks to protect the surgery site and the stitches.

Her foster took exceptional care of her… She did not spoil her at all as you can see in this picture…

In recovery

Only two days after surgery, her foster commented: “She is eating watered-down canned food, and lots of it. She is also drinking better. Hardly any sneezes. She doesn’t seem painful. I am amazed at how well she is doing honestly!! She seems surprised she can breathe through her nose and not sneezing.”

Four days after surgery, she kept improving: “Squirrel is now eating soft can food. No water added. She ate half a can this morning.”

Three weeks after surgery, we examined her mouth under sedation to assess the surgery site.

Thankfully, 100% of the surgery area “took.” The left side of the mouth (the pink area) still needed a bit more time to heal as nicely as the right, but I was reassured that everything worked out after the first surgery.


Squirrel’s foster concludes: “I cannot thank you enough for giving her this gift! She now has a new lease on life.”

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, FFcert.


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Dr. Phil Zeltzman

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling veterinary surgeon in Pennsylvania & New Jersey. An award-winning author, he loves to share his adventures in practice along with information about vet medicine and surgery that can really help your pets. Dr. Zeltzman specializes in orthopedic, neurologic, cancer, and soft tissue surgeries for dogs, cats, and small exotics. By working with local family vets, he offers the best surgical care, safest anesthesia, and utmost pain management to all his patients. Sign up to get an email when he updates his blog, and follow him on Facebook, too!