Animal lover Katie Friel was already the owner of a rescue bulldog when she was contacted by friends for advice when one of them had a litter of 10 English bulldog puppies in late August.
Seven pups were healthy, but two had a bilateral cleft lip and one had a unilateral cleft lip.
Katie was asked if she would be prepared to take on one of the specially formed puppies, Doris. But when the pups were just three days old, she received a panicked early morning phone call, with concerns that the special puppies were not managing to feed off their mum and losing weight.
She said: “The breeders had contacted a charity, Breeds In Need, for advice, who advised that these puppies can survive with intervention. These puppies would need tube feeding to avoid aspiration due to their clefts.
“The charity offered to take the pups and intervene themselves or they could offer 24-hour support if we would like to feed them ourselves. After an in-depth telephone call with Ruth from Breeds In Need, she gave me the confidence and information I needed to take on a puppy.”
Doris had a bilateral cleft lip, while friend Jane was to raise Gunner, who had a unilateral cleft lip, and another friend, Lisa was to raise Peggy Sue with a bilateral cleft lip.
Katie automatically called her vet to book in Doris and her brother, Gunner, for a check up and for guidance on the tube feeding process. But Katie was in for a shock.
She said: “Upon arriving at the vets, we explained we had all the information we needed to raise Doris and Gunner and we were fully aware we would need to tube feed them every two hours, day and night, but we were more than happy to do this to save them.
“They checked them over. Their lungs were clear, their pallets were fully intact, their only problem was their cleft lip that was preventing them from suckling. Once they were weened (after about five weeks), their issues would be purely cosmetic.”
But this did not cut any ice with the vet. Katie said: “The vet said, ‘we still advise you euthanise, as that’s how we practice’. Disgusted by their advice Jane said, ‘you wouldn’t put a cleft child to sleep’ the vet’s response was, ‘this is not a child, just a dog’.”
Katie said the vets refused to show how to tube feed or to sell the supplies needed.
Stunned Katie left feeling scared: “I had watched how to tube feed on videos but wanted to see it first hand, but to hear that was really disappointing.”
Turning to a friend who is part of Little Miracles in Peterborough, a charity for children with additional needs and life limiting conditions, they provided Katie with the feeding equipment needed. Another friend, a local intensive care nurse, showed her how to tube feed.
Katie said: “The process was simple once I was shown how and I then felt confident to carry on feeding this 345 gram puppy myself.
“To have to watch videos and have an ICU nurse teach me was a shame.”
Samira Nanjim, mother to Alex who attends Little Miracles, commented: “As parents of children who were also given a bleak prognosis we wanted to help. As parents of life limited children we understand that all life is sacred.”
Doris quickly gained on average 50 grams a day in her first week with Katie. “It was tiring, but very much worth all the effort,” she said.
Doris progressed to be fed from a ‘Miracle Nipple’, specially designed to fit down a dog’s throat, as she struggled to suck.
“If she was in pain I wouldn’t have carried on,” she said.
“Everyday she made progress and eventually her eyes opened and she started to walk and play.
“The first four weeks were really hard but I knew that. Luckily I was off work and didn’t have to get dressed.”
They found a new vet at Werrington Vets, who was supportive in them raising the puppies. He told her that it is the practice of most vets to euthanise these puppies, but it is not their personal policy and he will happily support people raising these puppies. His vet nurses also raise special puppies if needed.
Doris was weaned onto puppy mousse at two and a half weeks old due to becoming intolerant to her milk and will be 17 weeks old this Friday and is thriving.
“She eats three meals a day, drinks out of a bowl, enjoys playing and walks and sleeps all night,” said Katie. “We feed her only dried dog food as wet food can get stuck in her cleft and cause infection, but apart from that she is happy and healthy.”
An Instagram page set up for Doris (the_life_of_doris_2020) has gathered nearly 1,000 followers in a week.
“I’m on a mission to raise awareness for cleft puppies,” Katie explained. “By getting as many followers and shares as possible, we can get her story shared and possibly save a few more of these special babies.
“In fact, we were out walking her at the weekend and two people noticed her and said,’It’s that dog from Instagram!’”
She hoped people would seek advice and find a vet that will help or support them raising cleft puppies or they will surrender them to a charity or vet that will raise them. She also hoped the publicity would change the policies of vets that do advise to euthanise.
“I have met other people via social media that have also had success in raising these special babies and they are also leading happy, healthy lives, aged eight or nine. I believe, along with many others, that all life is precious and deserves a chance, even if a little intervention is needed,” she said.
After lockdown she hopes to get Doris registered to be allowed into hospitals to meet and reassure children with facial deformities and Little Miracles is keen to be on board with this. “I think that would be really nice,” said Katie.
It is believed that the deformity could be genetic and Doris’s mum, a family pet, will not breed again. It is also thought that dogs may be affected by toxins such as weedkiller at certain stages of pregnancy.