July 4, 2013 -- A tiny puppy is sending a big message to kids born with facial deformities: You're perfect just the way you are.
Lentil, a 5-month old French bulldog, was born with a cleft lip and palate, a developmental fluke that also affects 7,000 U.S. babies each year. And now he's teaching everyone he meets, plus about 100,000 Facebook fans, a thing or two about embracing differences.
"I think our kids relate to this little dog," said Char Smith, executive director of the Dallas-based Children's Craniofacial Association, where Lentil has become an "ambassadog" of sorts. "He's gone through surgery like they have; he looks different like they do."
Lentil had surgery in May to fix his cleft palate, a move his vet said was medically necessary to prevent food and water from escaping into his windpipe. But his owner and medical team decided to keep his cleft lip.
"He has such a huge fan group that people know him as 'Lentil with the cleft lip,'" said Dr. Alexander Reiter, the vet who performed Lentil's surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. "If we would have changed his lip appearance, we would have completely taken away his signature.
"He's already reached out to so many children," Reiter added, "kind of like a therapy dog."
Lentil was a special guest at this year's Children's Craniofacial Association annual retreat, a gathering of 101 families affected by facial deformities.
"It's a life-changing experience for these families," Smith said of the event, held last weekend in Orlando, Fla. "It gives them a chance to meet people with the same experiences, dealing with the same issues, whether medical, emotional or psychological. And I think having Lentil there made it extra special."
Lentil spent four days cuddling with kids, some of whom had cleft lips just like him.
"They do realize it, and they really identify with him," Smith said.
In one week, Lentil has raised more than $8,000 through his Facebook page to help families travel to next year's retreat, Smith said. He's also raising awareness of a medical problem that some would rather not face.
"Some people prefer to turn their heads and not worry about it," Smith said of craniofacial deformities. "And here we have this adorable little dog that has more than 90,000 fans on Facebook. The awareness he's bringing is just priceless."
Lentil bounced back well from his cleft-palate surgery, but he needs to go back to the vet in two weeks for a checkup, Dr. Reiter said. While he's there he'll visit kids awaiting similar surgeries at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Reiter said the visits send a powerful message.
"You are not alone," he said. "There are others and they struggle, too, but they're accepted and you're accepted, too."