It was just a week ago when I first saw a picture of “Champ.” Two-toned black and white coat. Two tiny bottom teeth mere buds in his gum line. His pink nose and top lip split in two, the result of a common birth defect in Boxers and other dogs with “smushed” faces. Champ was born with a cleft lip and palate, and the memories flooded back.

Solo Champ 1Marty and my first child, daughter Moira, was born with a cleft lip and palate. I didn’t know it happened in other species. And yet, why wouldn’t it?

In the two weeks before Moira was born, we learned as much as we could about clefts: how they developed, how they’re corrected, what else was wrong, what we could do.

Whether human or puppy, the head grows in such a fascinating way. The face basically starts at the base of the skull with two mirror-like sections on each side growing up and forward. Each section reflecting the other as it grows, the flesh wraps around the top and sides of the skull before finally coming together at the nose and mouth.

Our septums and that indent in the middle of our top lips? They’re like biological seams, evidence in flesh of our fetal experience. This basic blueprint for the face, as explained to Marty and I, was usually in place before most people even learn they’re pregnant, about midway through the first trimester.

~But clefts can be startling and scary. Startling simply because they look unnatural, a wee little face unfinished. And that’s basically what they are, as cells divide and flesh meets and grows together, a cell gets dropped or lost, leaving the lip or the palate or both, open. All the material is there, but at the very end of the process, it just didn’t come together.

The scary part is in the survival. Kids (and puppies) with clefts have a terrible time eating. Robbed of the ability to suck, nursing is often unsuccessful. Moira was fed with a soft-side bottle that we’d squeeze to the rhythm of her gnawing. I had reams of yellow legal pads documenting her nourishment by the ounce, by the hour. We kept a hospital-grade baby scale handy, measuring her losses and gains.

~I don’t like thinking back on this. It was a heart wrenching time. All I wanted was to comfort and cuddle my child and yet every feeding was choked by the worried thought, “How much would she eat this time?”

At death’s door, Champ is given a chance

~When I met with Champ’s foster mom, Tara Hansen of Miles who is also a vet technician at DeWitt Veterinary Clinic, she exhibited many of the same emotions I did nearly 15 years ago. Almost steely, I could feel her push aside the fear that comes with caring for a child with a cleft and focus on the task at hand, Champ’s survival.

Champ was two days old when he arrived at the vet clinic. Tara has a friend who breeds German Boxers and when his latest litter was born Jan. 18, one had a severe cleft palate. Two days later, unable to nurse, the pup was brought to Tara at the clinic to be euthanized.

Tara is not your average animal lover. She and her family have fostered countless animals in the past, but it’s the Boxer breed of dogs that is her calling. She and her family have two at home, six-month-old Lola and six-year-old Lucy. Just last fall, her eight-year-old Boxer Layla died from cancer of the blood vessels. “Now that she’s gone, I feel like I have to carry on caring for the breed.”

That’s what drove her to ask Champ’s owner if she could try to save him. “I knew the survival rate was low,” she said, “but I had to give it a whirl.”

~A brief attempt was made at bottle feeding Champ, but the cleft in his palate is so wide, the risk of aspiration was too high. “He’s turned blue on me. Several times,” she said.

So began the process of tube feedings every two hours in which Tara passes a feeding tube down Champ’s throat and into his stomach . . . every two hours. That means where ever Tara goes, Champ goes, too.

But it’s not all bad, with a four-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, Tara’s kids have relished the tiny baby. And the furry kids, how have they reacted? While the older Lucy doesn’t pay much attention, six-month-old Lucy may be a puppy herself, but has taken to mothering Champ like a pro. Even the family’s 15-year-old cat has proved vital, filling in on nap and cuddle duties when Lucy or the kids need a break.

~As she would with any other puppy, Tara started Champ on regular puppy formula, but after the first several days of slow, but steady gains he reached a point in which the formula wasn’t enough, “he was just stuck at 22 ounces. He wasn’t gaining and he wasn’t losing.”

After searching various website dedicated to the care of puppies with clefts, she learned goat’s milk could help boost a pup’s growth. And it has. For the past week, she’s been feeding Champ a half and half mix of puppy formula and goat’s milk. When I met him, Champ’s eyes had just opened and he was learning how to use his legs under that large, heavy head of his, bobbing all around.

While Tara loves to see him doing so well, she admits the feedings are growing increasingly more difficult: Champ can no see the tube coming and wants to fight it and chew on it.

~Monday Tara and Champ head to Ames and the veterinary college at Iowa State University for a surgery consultation in which she hopes a feeding port can be put in Champ’s stomach until he’s healed from the oral surgeries.

Tara was told medical costs could run as high as $3,000 so she set up a Go Fund Me account to collect donations.

Many people have asked Tara if she’s keeping Champ or, more commonly, can they adopt him. More than Champ’s foster mom, Tara sees herself as his protector. While there are many who’d love to adopt him, she has found Champ’s forever home in the arms of a local couple. After he heals from his surgeries, Champ’s new family will train him as a therapy dog for their chiropractic clinic!


Originally published 7 February 2015 in The Observer.

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