Lentil French Bulldog Helps Kids With Facial Defects

8:26 AM, Jul 8, 2013   |    comments
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(CBS) -- A French bulldog born with a cleft palate and lip is helping children born with facial deformities know that it is okay to look different.

Lentil was born on February 2 with a severe, double sided cleft in his hard and soft palate, lip and nose. As a result, his breeder gave him away. Lindsay Condefer, a former technician at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine who volunteers with the French Bulldog Rescue Network of Philadelphia, decided to take him in.

Just like in humans, cleft palates are found in dogs as well. Dr. Alexander Reiter, the chief of the dentistry and oral surgery service at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, explained that dogs typically present with a unilateral cleft on the left side of the snout. What made Lentil's case different is he had a cleft on both sides of his face and it extended through the hard and soft palate.

"Many people assume this is a breed issue. While it is true we see broad faced and short faced dogs they can occur in any breed. It's not necessarily a genetic issue," Reiter told CBSNews.com.

The hard palate cleft was the most concerning for veterinarians. It opened Lentil up to increased infections and aspiration risk, meaning the food or liquid he was consuming could go down his windpipe instead of his esophagus, every time he went to swallow. Condefer had to tube feed him every three hours in order to make sure the pup got the right nutrients.

When Lentil reached four months of age, doctors agreed it was best he have surgery to close the hard palate cleft to prevent any life-threatening infections or choking. However, since the soft palace and face clefts were purely cosmetic, they decided to leave them be.

"In a human if a child has a cleft lip, this is something that stands out," Reiter, who lead Lentil's surgery, said. "You want to give that child the best chance that it can have to be accepted into a society and not suffer from psychological problems. Dogs and cats do not know what they look like. They don't have a perception of themselves."

Dr. John Lewis, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine who assisted with Lentil's surgery, had just come back from giving a talk at the Center for Human Appearance at the University of Pennsylvania, and realized that Lentil could become a valuable teaching tool in helping patients, especially children, deal with facial defects. The team decided to create a program that would connect canines and people with cranial and facial deformities.

"We do have a number of dogs that have cranial/facial abnormalities that could be part of this program, but the fact that he (Lentil) has a congenital defect, the children patients relate to him in a different way," Lewis explained.

Lentil's effect on human patients was chronicled on CNN. One of the boys, 14-year-old Danny Pfeiffer, said that seeing how Lentil doesn't look like a regular dog but is still special in his own way helped him. Danny suffers from Saethre-Chotzen syndrome, where skull bones prematurely fuse and prevent the normal development of the face and head.

Lewis and his team are planning a "Best Friends Bash" in July where clinicians and veterinarians can meet up to discuss cases and learn from each others' techniques in treating people and animals with these deformities. Patients will also be invited to check out the animals. Besides Lentil, two other dogs who have had their jaws partially removed due to cancer and a therapy dog will be in attendance.

"Lentil has become more than just a patient. He has become an 'ambassadog' for less fortunate people in the world that suffer from cranial defects, especially children," Reiter said.

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