Cross-Species Teamwork

Canine and human doctors collaborate on treating cleft defects.
By JoAnna Lou, October 2015

Mr. Moo, a mixed breed puppy from Michigan, was born nine months ago with a cleft palate that forced him to eat through a tube. He was lucky to be taken under the wing of Doctor Bryden Stanley, chief of surgery for small animals at Michigan State University, but the veterinarian was unsure of how to treat the young dog. Usually soft tissue from the same area of the mouth would be used to build a flap over the hole, but there was no soft tissue in the direct area.

So Dr. Stanley sought out Dr. John Girotto, director of craniofacial surgery at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital. Dr. Girotto recommended doing what he does for kids without soft tissue—take it from inside of the cheek.

In May, Dr. Stanley performed the surgery on Mr. Moo, believed to be the first time the technique was ever performed on a dog. The puppy has since completely healed and has inspired the doctors to collaborate on helping more dogs and people with this condition.

Cleft lips and palates are a fairly common birth defect in kids, with one in 700 children born with the condition. There are no statistics on how common the defect is in dogs, but its thought to be more common in flat-nosed dogs.

Doctors Stanley and Girotto are now teaming up with two MSU geneticists in investigating the cause of cleft defects. The benefit of including dogs in the study is that results are available quicker, since they age faster than people.

There are some differences in treating dogs and humans, namely the number of doctors and other professionals involved. Dogs normally get two surgeries and then they're done, but children with cleft palates are seen by a whole team of people including, a craniofacial surgeon, plastic surgeon, orthodontist, speech therapist, an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and sometimes even a social worker and geneticist.

Doctors Stanley and Girotto are also working on another project. They're planning to treat dogs with cleft defects and then train them to be therapy dogs. These pups will then be able to visit with kids having the same surgery, allowing for a special kind of bond.

I love to see collaborations between doctors and veterinarians!

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.