Lucy had her first litter of puppies in June 2007. This was also my first experience with newborn pups. On Saturday night, she gave birth to seven puppies. On Monday morning, I discovered that one puppy was dead. Even though I was told to expect to loose some, this was very distressing to me. By Monday afternoon I saw that another puppy was in really bad shape and rushed him to the veterinarian. The vet informed me that the pup was dehydrated and gave the him some dextrose under the skin. He did OK for a day or two, then slipped back to where he started.
In my concern for the pup, I got on the internet and looked for anything that would tell me what was wrong with the puppy. Finally, I came upon a website that talked about puppies born with cleft palate. Sure enough, when I looked in the pups mouth, it was obvious that he had the cleft palate. These puppies cannot form the suction that is required to nurse from their mother. I had noticed that my puppy could get milk that was in the nipple, but when he had to suck hard enough to pull the milk down, he just couldn’t do it. So cleft palate pups will get some milk, but not much.
I found a wonderful website where a breeder of Labrador Retrievers gave a lot of tips about how to take care of a cleft palate puppy. This website, http://hennwood.tripod.com/id88.htm, is very helpful and has all the information anyone would need. I would highly recommend that anyone who is trying to save a cleft palate puppy read it. I tried what I read, but my pup died at three weeks. It was pretty hard to take, but I knew that if I ever had another cleft palate pup that I had more experience, better information and the pup would have a better chance of living.
June of 2008 brought us another litter, this time of eight puppies. I didn’t look in the pups mouths but knew to be watching the pups progress. By the second day, I knew that I had another cleft palate pup.
The information that I learned from the Hennwood site was an excellent starting point, but this time I decided to do a few things differently. I had read about tube feeding cleft palate puppies, so I thought that would be better than trying to bottle feed my pup. My vet showed me how to do run the tube down the throat and it looked easy enough, so I went home and tried it. The first time I did all right and was satisfied with what I had done. The second time was not as good and by the third time I was getting blood on the tube when I removed it. The pup fought the tube more each time, and when I got blood on the tube, I decided that I couldn’t continue to tube feed. For people who have the experience raising pups, tube feeding is a viable option, but it wasn’t for me and my pup.
My vet and I talked about what kind of milk to give the pup and we decided on goat milk. Goat milk is very much like the dam’s milk, so I decided that it was what I would feed my pup. There are different formulas available and they are certainly OK, just don’t give cow’s milk, it is too hard to digest. I knew that it was important to the puppy to have everything going for him that I could. I have neighbors that raise Boer goats and knew they would have goat milk available. I got lucky because my neighbors had a quart of first milk which is full of colostrum, natural antibodies for the baby goats. I counted on this first milk to be as good as anything at the store and started bottle feeding it to the pup. I named the puppy Abraham and started feeding the tiny little thing every hour to an hour and a half, day and night.
I kept Abe on the first milk for over a week. It was recommended that the puppy be given antibiotics for the first ten days to keep the risk of the pup dying from the pneumonia. Being a person who leans more to the natural approach of living, I decided against the antibiotics. I felt that the anti-bodies in the first milk were better than antibiotics.
At first, I fed him from a little bottle that you can get at most any place that sells pet supplies. I had learned from the Hennwood website to hold the bottle to where the puppy had to hold its head up pretty straight. The main danger that a cleft palate puppy faces is fluid in its lungs and the aspiration pneumonia that follows. If the puppy is fed too much, it will regurgitate the milk and the fluid will go into the lungs. I worked at feeding Abraham enough, but not too much, never knowing for sure which I had done. If the milk came out of the side of his mouth or bubbled out his nose, he was getting too much too fast. There were times that Abraham would just open his mouth and I would squeeze the bottle enough for the milk to drip fairly fast straight into his mouth. This was the best way to feed him and how I got the most milk down him. I learned to squeeze the bottle a little to get more milk down him when he was swallowing good and to slow down when the milk was going too fast.
I tried weighing him to make sure that he was growing, but I never figured out how to get an accurate weight on a hungry, squirming puppy. An ounce of weight was slow in coming and there were times that I didn’t know whether he was growing any or not, but he continued to survive, so I continued in what I was doing.
Even though Abe was very slow in gaining any weight, slow and steady weight gain is what you aim for. He always took about the same amount of milk. Sometimes he would take more milk, but the next time, he would take less. It was getting frustrating trying to get enough milk down him to help him grow. I finally remembered that on the Hennwood website she talked about giving Nutrical, which would help add nutrients to the pup and, since it has some sugar in it, would add weight. I was able to get the Nutrical from my local vet. By this time I was giving him regular goat’s milk, but I started adding a small amount of cream to it to add some fat to the mixture. Between the Nutrical and the extra fat, I could tell that he finally started gaining a small amount of weight.
The other puppies were getting big and outgrowing Abe by leaps and bounds. Somewhere along the line, Abe got hurt and we had to remove him from the litter. He was learning new things, but seemed to be about two weeks behind his litter mates.
At the very young age of three weeks, I started feeding Abraham raw meat. I started with chicken hearts, which I put in the food processor. He ate his first solid food like a pro. The other puppies were much bigger than him, but he was right in there eating as much as the others. If a cleft palate pup is put on regular dog food, they have to eat kibble, not canned dog food, as the soft food will get into the opening in the palate. Because the raw food was soft and much like canned dog food, I worried about it getting into his lungs. However, I felt like the raw food was so much better for him that I decided that I would continue the processed chicken hearts until he could start eating them whole. By eating the raw food, he finally started gaining enough weight that I could tell that he was probably going to make it.
I was able to go to a regular baby bottle as Abe grew. I had to try several different bottles and nipples before I finally found the right combination for him. I found that the plain old Gerber baby bottle was soft enough that I could squeeze it a little to help force the milk out. I never could get the right holes cut in the nipple so that Abe could get the right amount of fluid, so it worked better for me to squeeze the bottle a bit. As Abraham ate more raw food and less milk, my husband worried constantly about him getting enough water, even though I told him that raw fed dogs don’t need a lot of water because they get water from the meat. Yet Roy took it upon himself to sit and give Abe water many times during the day. I had thought that when it came time, we would find just the right home for Abraham and even had someone in mind for him. But Roy got so attached to Abe and Abe to him, there was no way that we would be able to send him to another home.
I had always known that there were surgery options available for Abe, but thought that they would be more expensive than we could ever afford. And I had read on the internet that the surgeries were difficult and often didn’t work. One day, Roy ran into a vet friend of his and he said something to her about surgery for Abe. She referred us to a clinic in Austin that had all kinds of surgeons and specialty vets. We took Abe to see if his cleft palate could be fixed and if we could afford it. We were very pleased to find out that his cleft palate was not too bad. The surgery was not too expensive and it was done that day.
Abe’s cleft palate was long and ran the length of his hard palate. Fortunately the opening was narrow. The wider the opening, the harder it is to fix. So, in the eyes of the surgeon, it was not a bad cleft palate. She simply cut a small layer of skin on one side of the slit in his palate and then folded it over the slit and stitched it down on the other side. The surgeon also found that Abe’s soft palate was not attached as it should be, but it only required a few stitches to fix it. The surgery went well and Abe was released to us the next day.
Abraham never acted like anything had been done to him. For a week we had to keep him from playing too rough, which was not the easiest thing to do with a six-month-old puppy, especially when we have a one-year-old dog at home who loves to play. For four weeks we had to make sure that he didn’t eat any bones or chew on sticks that might puncture the skin in the roof of his mouth. Eventually the skin covering the slit will get tough enough that bones and sticks are not a problem, but keeping bones away from him was the most difficult part of all.
We took him in for his check up at three weeks and the surgeon confirmed that Abe still had a small opening at the front of his mouth. She put three more stitches in his mouth and said that when the stitches dissolved that it would be fine. We had to add two more weeks of keeping him away from bones.
This week we started letting Abe have bones again. He is really enjoying them! The experience of raising this pup has been one of the most rewarding things that I have ever undertaken. There were times when I was so tired that I didn’t think that I would be able to persevere, but when he got strong enough that I knew that he was going to make it, the tiredness went away. From that point on, it was more fun than anything to watch him grow. Roy even lets him sleep in bed with us, an unheard of practice in our house before Abe. He is a very special pup and has a special place in our hearts.