When you bring home a new puppy, you likely have not considered the potential for birth, or congenital, defects. Health issues should affect only older pets, right? Unfortunately, puppies can be born with congenital conditions that can involve any organ system or body part. While some are mild and may resolve on their own, others can be severe and require surgical repair or lifelong nursing care and medication. Still other congenital defects can prevent normal development and function, causing premature death. 

Although you may think congenital defects should be obvious at birth—after all, they’re called birth defects for a reason—many conditions can go undetected for months or years in your puppy, because no issue is apparent. When you welcome a new pup into your family, you should first schedule a wellness exam to ensure they are in good health. Dr. Man will check your puppy from nose to tail, searching for underlying health issues that may be caused by a genetic predisposition, or other reasons.

Why do congenital conditions develop in puppies?

Congenital defects in puppies can occur for no known reason, be inherited, breed-specific, or caused by environmental factors, or can be a combination of any of these. 

  • Risks to the mother during pregnancy — Any abnormal event that a mother experiences while her puppy fetus is still developing can cause a birth defect. Dogs who experience temperature extremes, nutritional deficiencies, trauma, infections, or chemical exposure can give birth to puppies with congenital conditions. The birth defect severity is often linked to the fetus’ development stage at the time of the event, but generally, the earlier the stage, the more the developing puppy is at risk.
  • Breed-specific conditions — Some congenital defects are specific to certain breeds and a result of exaggerated breed characteristics. For example, brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, which is commonly seen in bulldogs, results in abnormal respiratory tract development, leading to breathing difficulties.
  • Inherited conditions — Many congenital conditions are believed to be inherited, although the exact transmission is often unknown. Examples include portosystemic shunts in Yorkshire terriers, dilated cardiomyopathy in Dobermans, and kidney disease in wheaten terriers.
  • Breed and inherited conditions combined — Some birth defects that have proved to be hereditary in certain breeds are passed on through the parents’ genes. The breed name is often included in the condition description, and dogs who display these conditions should not be bred. Examples include collie eye anomaly, Scottie cramp, Labrador retriever myopathy, and white dog shaker syndrome.

Common congenital conditions in puppies

There are too many congenital conditions in puppies to name, but here are a few  common defects you may see:

  • Cleft palates — A cleft palate is a defect in the face and jaw that develops when the puppy is in their embryonic stage. This congenital defect can range widely in severity, but typically leaves an open space in the roof of the mouth to the breathing passages, which can lead to problems nursing and respiratory infections. Most cleft palates can be surgically repaired.
  • Neurologic defects — Puppies can suffer from a vast number of neurologic defects, but because their nervous system is not fully developed at birth, defects may not become apparent until they begin to walk. In some cases, a congenital defect that has been present since birth may not become evident until the dog has reached adulthood. Some common neurologic defects in puppies include hydrocephalus, cerebellar hypoplasia, vertebral malformations, caudal cervical spondylomyelopathy (i.e., Wobbler syndrome), atlantoaxial subluxation, and a wide range of neuropathies. Surgery can help some neurologic defects in puppies, while medication may alleviate others. However, most pets learn to compensate for their congenital defects and walk, play, and eat to the best of their ability.
  • Heart defects — Many heart defects can occur in puppies, and, while some may be treated by surgical or pharmaceutical means, others have a poor prognosis, and little can be done except keeping the puppy comfortable. Heart defects in puppies include patent ductus arteriosus; pulmonic, aortic, and mitral stenosis; persistent right aortic arch; ventricular and aortic septal defects; and mitral and tricuspid valve dysplasia. 

Keep in mind that not all heart murmurs are cause for concern when your puppy is young. Your veterinarian may hear a heart murmur at your puppy’s first wellness visit, but this does not always indicate a congenital heart defect. Some puppies have a low-grade systolic murmur caused by mild blood turbulence that will disappear by 6 months of age. 

  • Cryptorchidism — Male puppies can suffer from a congenital condition known as cryptorchidism, where one or both testicles fail to descend into the scrotum. Not obvious at birth, this condition is usually noticeable by the first or second puppy veterinary visit. 
  • Umbilical hernias — A hernia forms when an organ or body tissue protrudes through an abnormal body wall opening, such as through the abdomen. Umbilical hernias are relatively common in puppies and are generally easy to surgically repair. 
  • Portosystemic shunts — In puppies with portosystemic shunts, their circulatory system bypasses the liver and its toxin-removing ability, and the blood enters the general bloodstream and carries toxins to the brain and organs. Nervous system imbalances and a failure to thrive are the most common signs, but surgical correction may be possible.

With so many congenital conditions affecting puppies, ensure your new furry pal is healthy with a checkup at Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital. If you notice your pup failing to thrive, or having difficulties walking, breathing, or eating, contact our team for a thorough evaluation.