Quality of Life with a Cleft Palate?

Quality of Life with a Cleft Palate?

A horse with a cleft palate could be used as a companion for another horse if she is able to eat and drink without suffering severe feed aspiration.

Photo: The Horse Staff

Q: I work on a stud farm in South Africa. We have a 2-year-old that has a cleft palate. It is affecting her soft palate and a bit of her hard palate. The owners want to put her down, but I'm looking for a "stand around companion" for my own horse. Is there any chance she'd be comfortable enough to just graze around as a "buddy" for my horse where she wouldn’t be exercised?  
--Elizabeth, Bonnievale, South Africa

A: This is a difficult question to answer without knowing more about the horse. The horse could be used as a companion for another horse if she is able to eat and drink without suffering severe feed aspiration. Most horses with a cleft palate of the severity you describe (i.e., one that extends from the caudal [rear] border of the soft palate into the hard palate) suffer from feed aspiration into the trachea and lungs of such a magnitude that they become unthrifty. A horse with severe aspiration pneumonia is likely to have a poor quality of life.

To establish aspiration severity, your veterinarian can auscultate (listen to) the lungs and perform an endoscopic examination of the trachea, a radiographic examination of the chest, and/or a complete blood count. Even with all these tests, some of which are expensive, it might be difficult to determine the prognosis for the future well-being of this horse, and observing how the horse tolerates the respiratory defect over several months might be more informative and economical.

Meanwhile, you can experiment with the effects of different feeds on respiration and the presence of feed at the nostrils. Long-stemmed, moist hay is more likely to find its way into the horse’s esophagus than dry, leafy hay, and feeding on the ground might allow for feed in the respiratory tract to be discharged from the trachea as the horse eats with her head lowered. Feeding calorie-dense feeds, such as rice bran or fat-containing feeds (about 10%, or less, fat), might help a horse with chronic aspiration pneumonia maintain weight. A permanent tracheostomy, which can be performed economically with the horse standing and sedated, might mitigate the effects of feed aspiration into the trachea by providing an exit route for aspirated feed.

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