Many healthy puppies are born with little or no health problems, and they go on to live healthy lives. It is an unfortunate fact, however, that many others are born with one or more defects. These defects can sometimes be debilitating or even life-threatening. According to one source, over 250 congenital defects have been identified in dogs. Congenital means that the defect is present at birth. Others may inherit a defect, but it does not appear until later in a dog’s life. There are multiple reasons why a dog may be born with a defect. 

There may be environmental causes, for example. An infectious agent such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites may cause defects. Inappropriate use of medicines during pregnancy can also sometimes result in some or all of the puppies having some sort of defect. In addition to these environmental causes, there may be nutritional imbalances. For example, there may be deficient levels of folic acid or even an excess of Vitamin A. Mutations in the dog’s DNA might also be a culprit. Inbreeding increases the likelihood that detrimental genes are passed to the offspring. Sometimes the cause may even be that a process does not take place that normally does. According to an online newsletter published by the AKC, there are three structures that should normally degenerate a few days after birth. These structures are designed to protect the lungs and liver of the fetus but become potentially damaging after birth if they do not degenerate.

An example of a birth defect that is often caused by nutritional factors is that of the cleft palate. A cleft palate occurs when the bones forming the roof of the mouth do not grow normally. This means that there is an opening between the mouth and the nasal cavity. Milk will often come out of the nursing pup’s nose, and tragically many die from pneumonia or malnourishment. On a more positive note, mild openings in the palate can often be corrected through surgery.

Hip dysplasia is a defect affecting primarily large and giant breeds. This is characterized by a femur that does not fit correctly into the hip socket. It is generally considered to be heritable, but research suggests environment may play a role as well. In cases that cannot be fully treated with weight, exercise control and medications, the dog may need hip-modification surgery.

There are some birth defects primarily affecting the heart and circulatory system. One example is pulmonic stenosis, a congenital narrowing of the artery going to the lungs. In severely affected dogs, surgery can be performed to remove the narrowing and improve blood flow. Another example is ventricular septal defect, a condition in which the chambers of the heart do not properly develop, resulting in backward blood flow in the heart. Again, in severe cases, surgery is needed to correct the defect.

Hydrocephalus or “water on the brain” is a defect that puts excess pressure on the brain. This may result in blindness or impaired vision. Another defect called “wobbler syndrome” occurs when the spine in the neck is deformed. Basset hounds, Doberman Pinschers and Great Danes are examples of breeds that are susceptible to this defect that may result in difficulty in walking or the even worse condition of paralysis in all four legs. These are just two other defects that may require surgery to relieve the problem.

Unfortunately, not all defects are treatable, and sometimes the best option is euthanasia. On the other hand, for many new-born pups, there may be an option for treatment. Our purpose here is to raise awareness of the challenges that exist and to provide some basic educational information that dog owners may use as a starting point for finding answers to those challenges.