Meet Lentil, a canine ambassador for cleft lip and cleft palate

Lentil is a French bulldog puppy with a mission. Born with bilateral cleft lips and midline cleft palate, Lentil, at three months old, is nevertheless a “total pistol” who “rules the house,” according to his foster mom Lindsay Condefer.

An internet star with his own blog and Facebook page—more than 67,000 “Likes” and counting—Lentil’s photos have been featured on Today.com, The Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed.com. His endearing appearance has led many to donate to the French Bulldog Rescue Network, the organization that took him in when he was born.

“I think he has acquired such a following because he represents something simple and pure,” says Condefer. “He makes people smile.”

Cuteness aside, however, Lentil’s cleft palate poses a serious threat to his health. The opening in the roof of his mouth puts him at risk of aspiration pneumonia because food or other materials enter his airway.

That risk is why Condefer has turned to oral surgeons at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine to help Lentil. Though they acknowledge the severity of the puppy’s condition, John Lewis and Alexander Reiter of Penn Vet’s Dentistry and Oral Surgery Service are hopeful that they can give Lentil the opportunity to live a long, healthy life, and serve as an example to children with similar conditions.

Condefer is director of the Philadelphia-based Street Tails Animal Rescue and owner of the pet store The Chic Petique. For more than a dozen years, she has cared for special needs dogs but had never had a case quite like Lentil’s. Her research on his condition led her to travel out of state to consult with a group of veterinarians who left her with little hope that his condition could be effectively repaired.

But then she sought a second opinion in her own city. She knew Lewis from a previous job she had, working in the intensive care unit at Penn Vet’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital. After connecting with him by email, she sent a few photos of Lentil’s cleft palate.

“To put it in medical terms, what Lentil’s got is a complete cleft of the secondary palate and complete bilateral clefts of the primary palate,” says Lewis, who is an assistant professor at Penn Vet. “It’s rare to see all of those in one patient.”

Still, Lewis was not deterred by the severity of the malformations.

“I told Lindsay, ‘Well, it’s going to require some work, but I think it’s too early to give up on him at this point,’” says Lewis. “Things can change as the patient grows.”

Fortunately for Lentil, his outlook has improved as he’s gotten older. His head has enlarged in relation to the size of the defect in his palate, and Lewis and Reiter now believe they’ll be able to provide a functional repair in the roof of Lentil’s mouth.

“I honestly couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated and excited team of doctors,” Condefer wrote on her blog.

At an April 29 consultation, Reiter met with Condefer and Lentil to plot out the treatment plan, which will likely involve one or multiple surgeries with an aim toward creating a roof to Lentil’s mouth and a floor to his nasal passage. Lentil’s first surgery has been tentatively scheduled for May 28.

Though the repairs that Lentil requires won’t be simple, they will be less involved than they might otherwise have been because Condefer is not concerned with restoring a “normal” cosmetic appearance—only that Lentil is able to safely eat and drink. Therefore, the Penn Vet surgeons will likely not repair his cleft lips.

“In fact, I think Lentil could probably do more in this world by not getting his lips repaired, by being kind of a ‘spokesperson’ for cleft lips,” says Lewis.

Lewis is working to develop a program at Penn that brings dogs with maxillofacial defects to visit children who have similar problems. Lentil is already being groomed for a role as ambassador to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia patients with craniofacial disorders.

“I think it would be great for kids to see dogs that have similar problems or have similar adversities, and the way that they bounce back from that,” says Lewis. “It is really inspiring.”

Lewis already has a few dogs that have defects from oral cancer surgeries certified to be visitation animals in such a program, but says Lentil could be “the cherry on top in terms of being a natural cleft patient to whom kids with cleft lips and a cleft palate could really relate.”

Lentil is already indirectly helping children, as his internet celebrity and related donations have more than covered the money needed for his treatment.

Now donations are being split between Street Tails, the French Bulldog Rescue Network, and the Children’s Craniofacial Association.

“This is bigger than him now,” says Condefer. “So many people have reached out and want to help him. Now I want him to help others.”

Originally published on May 9, 2013