Meet Panini: Special needs puppy with a special purpose


French bulldogs are one of the most sought after dog breeds in America. Their breeders often maintain long waitlists for those who want their puppies, a guaranteed home before birth. But one Philly Frenchie was to be euthanized the day she was born.

Meet Panini, a French bulldog puppy born with cleft lip and palate. Without special care, these birth defects would have starved her to death. While her cleft lip is a simple external deformity, her cleft palate creates an internal opening between the roof of her mouth and nasal cavity—when she eats, the food comes out of her nose. Faced with the decision of tube feeding or starvation, her owners opted for euthanasia.

But euthanasia never came. Instead, Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia brought Panini to the Philadelphia Animal Hospital on June 25, 2016, just hours after birth to see if the veterinarians could help her. It was there that her life was saved by veterinarian Lawrence Rebbecchi and his daughter, Daria.

Easy choice, difficult journey

Daria Rebbecchi had just graduated from the University of Florida with her degree in animal science and returned to Philadelphia to attend Penn Vet in the fall. She was shadowing her father, a Penn Vet graduate himself, when Panini came to his hospital.

“I decided Panini was going to be my summer,” she said.

Panini had to be tube fed every three hours for the first six weeks of her life, a difficult task for even a veterinarian. It took two weeks for Rebbecchi to begin feeding Panini without her father’s guidance, and even then there were risks. She said that when fed this way, the tube can accidentally go into the lungs, choking and killing the animal. Without the natural defenses of her mother’s milk, Panini was also at a higher risk of contracting an infection, and her facial deformity continues to make her more likely to get pneumonia.

“My dad had to keep reminding me that there was a very real risk we could lose her,” Rebbecchi said.

According to Rebbecchi, cleft lip and palate are most common among brachycephalic—or flat-faced—breeds including French bulldogs, pugs, and Boston terriers. The difficulties of caring for a puppy with cleft palate are often what lead owners to elect for euthanasia instead. In an episode of Life at Vet U, an Animal Planet reality series shot at Penn Vet, a woman whose dog gives birth to a puppy with cleft palate must make the decision between euthanasia and the difficulties the Rebbecchis faced raising Panini. Unlike Panini’s original owners, she opted to support her puppy.

At 17 weeks, Panini has defied all odds. Her dark-colored face makes it hard to even see her cleft lip at first glance. While she’s still half as big as Frenchies her own age—when most Frenchie puppies reach 10 lbs., she was only four—she’s happy, healthy, and full of life. Maybe a little too full of life—Rebbecchi said that when she has exams, her dad needs to watch Panini. Otherwise, the energetic puppy keeps her from studying.

Panini loves to play, especially with bigger dogs. And there are plenty of those at the Alpha Psi house, a veterinary fraternity where Rebbecchi and Panini live. She loves her tasseled rope toys, including Rebbecchi’s scarves, and playing with people’s hair, including Rebbecchi’s.

She may still drink out of a hamster bottle, but she can now eat kibble big enough to not get stuck in her cleft palate. She doesn’t have enough teeth to chew her food, so Rebbecchi softens it with water.

“Panini doesn’t need the surgery to live at this point, but I want her to have a more normal life where she can eat treats like other dogs and not worry about infections like pneumonia,” she said.

The surgery will only repair Panini’s cleft palate and will leave her cleft lip, the split separating the left side of her upper lip. The intense surgery will take half a day to complete, according to Rebbecchi.

Alexander Reiter, a veterinarian specializing in animal dentistry and oral surgery at Penn Vet, will perform Panini’s surgery. Reiter operated on another Philadelphia Frenchie with cleft palate named Lentil, who is famous for his own journey as a dog with cleft lip and palate.

A future in healing

Rebbecchi said that Penn Vet embraces what it calls a “one health” model, looking at the connections between human and animal health in instruction and practice. This is true especially for Panini. When she has her surgery on November 8, Jesse Taylor, a surgeon from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, will be in the operating room.

Taylor is co-director of the Cleft Lip and Palate Program at CHOP. And it’s at CHOP that Panini may find her new family. Rebbecchi hopes to secure a home for Panini among one of Taylor’s patients. She said she already knows what good Panini can do for children with cleft lip and palate. She maintains Instagram and Facebook accounts for Panini for this reason.

“A little boy from South America made Panini his ‘Woman Crush Wednesday’ on Instagram. When I went to look at his profile, he had cleft lip, too,” Rebbecchi said. “When I saw that, I just started crying hysterically.”

“Panini doesn’t know that she’s any different from any other dog. That’s just her life. She has no way of knowing it’s an impairment,” she said.

Rebbecchi’s father will provide free lifelong veterinary care for the family that adopts Panini, so she hopes that whoever they are stay local.

“But I think that if I saw her again, I’d cry,” Rebbecchi said, laughing.

Follow Panini’s journey on Facebook and Instagram. Wish her luck with her surgery on November 8!

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