Photo Essay: Saving a Puppy Slated for Euthanasia

Written by: Chelsea Whitney

Here is my chocolate shake and chocolate lab puppy, right after I agreed to foster him.
Photos by Chelsea Whitney

[Editor’s note: I saw Chelsea Whitney’s inspirational story and photos online and asked if she would share it with our audience. Chelsea works at VCA Veterinary Care Animal Hospital and Referral Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and spent a full year caring for a puppy that was slated to be euthanized. Through her dedication, hard work, and love, Chelsea saw Bronson through a difficult year. But as you read through these captions, you’ll see that she got as good as she gave. Here’s her story.]

On my 30th birthday, a chocolate lab had a c-section at my veterinary clinic and had nine puppies. One had a cleft palate, and the owners opted to euthanize the puppy. Knowing what a sucker I was, another vet tech got the family to sign the puppy over and asked me to foster the puppy.

During the puppy’s first night home, Quinn (Spawn of Satan) took an interest in this squealing creature. It broke my heart because I told her that he probably wouldn’t live two weeks.

It is a blessing to be able to provide humane euthanasia to puppies with cleft palates. Depending on the severity of the cleft, and if it affects the hard or soft palate, puppies usually do not thrive. The space in the roof of their mouth does not allow them to suckle properly, and they eventually die of starvation. This little chocolate bean had no idea that he had some bad genetics and latched quickly to his binky.

When he was one week old, I had been up every 1-2 hours religiously tube-feeding this little boy with a red rubber tube and syringing Esbilac (puppy milk replacer). I was exhausted, but realizing that my little “science experiment” might actually survive. I took him on knowing that he might not live, but hope was growing.

At two weeks old, this little boy traveled to work with me every day. Since I work in a veterinary clinic, it was easy to feed and stimulate him every two hours. He really loved his binky.

At three weeks old, I decided that this little boy was a fighter. He was starting to scream for his feedings and would come barreling out of his kennel on his little legs. I named him Bronson, after one of my favorite roles played by Tom Hardy.

Quinn, Queen of the Underworld, showed interest in Bronson for a while. This is one of the last photos I have before they decided to become mortal enemies.

At five weeks old, his eyes and ears were all the way open, and he was taking in the world and all its sounds and tastes and sights. He had completely ditched his binky and become attached to my fingers. Many cleft-palate puppies that survive will often carry this trait with them to adulthood.

At six weeks old, Bronson was starting to look like a real pupper.

At seven weeks old, he was starting to get into stuff and run around the house like a madman. I got him this superman t-shirt to watch him fly. He was absolutely naughty, and I loved it.

Bronson Bean, Chocolate Thunder, Creature from the Brown Lagoon, mi Cucaracha…thriving and two months old. My heart was completely his at this point.

Bronson’s cleft palate was a particularly bad one, as it extended from his hard palate all the way to his soft palate. The surgeon I worked with was a little skeptical about my taking on this type of genetic defect, but he also wanted to see how Bronson would do. The surgeon would continue to monitor Bronson’s defect, so we could decide on a day for surgery.

This became our ritual. In the beginning, it was just small amounts of warm milk every two hours. As he grew, it became a trial-and-error session of coming up with the perfect concoction of canned food that would go through the red tube easily. After many tries, I mixed Iams Chicken and Rice canned pate with Esbilac, blended it, sieved out the sediment, and would syringe feed him. The amount grew larger and larger, and I had to eventually use a 60 cc syringe.

Bronson quickly became everyone’s favorite puppy at my work. He has become superbly socialized, although with terrible, terrible manners.

I remember this day. He came down with a slight fever due to his second round of vaccines and was feeling very sad. We spent some time outside suckling. At this point, I had told my husband that I had stopped letting him suckle. . .lies. All lies.

This was the first time I saw him as a grown-up. I experienced for the first time in my life the need to keep something little forever.

He spent lots of his time tied up to the kitchen table while I meal-prepped for my week. I had a good schedule going of dropping him off at the clinic in the morning and going to the gym for a couple of hours. After all, I had been getting up at 4 am every day since I’d brought him home.

The more and more I grew attached to this little guy, the more I realized he turned into my therapy puppy. He made each day better.

He started becoming super cuddly, aside from all the behavioral issues he started to develop due to his syringe feedings, lack of treats, and lack of fun toys. The surgeon said I had to keep most things out of his mouth. It was a hard life for a lab puppy.

As his face grew, his palate grew longer and closer. I kept pestering my surgeon, but he kept telling me to wait. I had to make the decision between stopping the tube feedings and starting dry food. At this point, Bronson had been sedated three times for getting stuff stuck up in his cleft: an ear plug, kitty litter, and desert-tortoise poop at my parents house. This turned me into a psycho pet parent, and I always had my hands in his mouth pulling everything out. I was super careful, but he was quick.

Here’s a good pic of how his face grew crooked. At this point, he was almost a year old. He had been switched to dry food that disintegrated with water intake. Although food still got stuck in his cleft sometimes , I made sure to buy puppy kibble that was round. That way, the sharp edges didn’t cut into his sensitive tissue up in his exposed nasal area.

Here you can see that, as he aged, the cleft grew closer together. He was almost ready for surgery. This was almost an end to him being a sheltered, highly energetic lab with sinus infections and bloody sneezing. Overall, he had done quite well, which shocked most of the veterinarians. He never got aspiration pneumonia from the tube-feeding and never needed antibiotics.

This photo was taken one of the times he was younger and had to be sedated to pull junk out of his cleft. I was EXTREMELY vigilant at all times, but puppies will be puppies. Because he jaw grew crooked, you can see the hole developing on the left side of the roof of his mouth from his lower left canine digging in to it

The day had come: April 29, 2016, my thirty-first birthday. I was a nervous wreck, but excited that this hard year was finally coming to a close. My baby boy, my best friend, the bane of my existence, and the absolute love of my life, was finally going to have a normal life.

Here is Bronson today with Layla, his 12-year-old Pit-mix sister, and Harley, his 10-year-old Border Collie brother. The tissue is almost completely healed, he is able to play with toys, chew on raw hides, swim in lakes, go on walks, and bring me sticks. He can basically live the rest of his life as a perfectly normal Lab. I love my dogs.

4 thoughts on “Photo Essay: Saving a Puppy Slated for Euthanasia”

  1. An incredible and inspirational story. You’re something very special, Chelsea. And so is Bronson.

  2. I truly commend you !!!! You are truly the most loving person I ever read about – From one animal lover to another I thank you for saving such a beautiful life ! I don’t know if you believe in God – but He is truly smiling down on you !!!!!

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