By Val Willingham, CNN
(CNN) — He’s 5 months old, about 10 pounds of adorable, and he already has more than 90,000 Facebook friends.
His name is Lentil, and he’s a French Bulldog puppy who has made quite a name for himself in Philadelphia by helping raise awareness of children with craniofacial abnormalities affecting the head and face, such as cleft palate or cleft lip.
Lentil’s story began in February when a litter of four puppies was born in New Jersey. All the puppies had facial defects; only Lentil survived, with a cleft palate and a cleft lip.
Because of his palate problems, Lentil was unable to eat or drink on his own, and he had to be fed through a tube every couple of hours.
He needed constant care, so Lindsay Condefer, a volunteer with the French Bull Dog Rescue Network of Philadelphia, stepped in to help.
She began a 24/7 feeding program, making sure Lentil was getting nutrition properly and frequently. His palate was so deformed that food and liquid going up Lentil’s nose and into his lungs was a danger.
The first three months of Lentil’s life were touch-and-go. Condefer says she was constantly on edge.
“In the beginning, he ate every two hours throughout, over a 24-hour period, and then as he got older, we were able to stretch it to three hours,” she explains.
It was obvious Lentil would eventually need surgery, so she sought the help of doctors at the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school.
She also started to blog about her experiences with Lentil and created a Facebook page called “My name is Lentil,” figuring it would be a good way to create awareness of the problems cleft lips and palates cause in animals including dogs. She never thought Lentil would become so popular.
“I started the blog first just to sit and write and get all my thoughts out, to like let people know what I was feeling and going through,” says Condefer. “And then the blog turned into his Facebook page, and I remember looking at him and thinking … ‘Wait, he has 3,000 people following him? Oh my gosh, he has up to 10,000?’ ”
Because Lentil was so young, doctors had to wait a few months before performing his surgery. Drs. Alexander Reiter and John Lewis, both with the vet school’s Department of Dentistry and Oral Surgery, had worked on animals with cleft palates before, but Lentil’s case was special because he also had the cleft lip.
The two consulted with Dr. Jesse Taylor, a plastic surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, on the best way to treat the puppy. Because Lentil’s lip was only a cosmetic problem that did not interfere with his eating and drinking, the surgeons agreed to fix just his palate.
“The cleft lip itself is more of a cosmetic surgery,” Reiter notes. “It’s not really a necessity for patients that are not fully aware of what they look like.”
Because Lentil would still have his cleft lip, the vet school wanted the pup to become part of a program it was developing where kids with certain conditions met animals with the same conditions.
Lentil, the doctors felt, would be the perfect “ambassodog” for children with craniofacial issues.
“We started to talk about how it may be beneficial to be able to allow some of our veterinary patients who were having some pretty complex craniofacial surgeries and some changes in appearance to be able to meet some children and even adults who are going through some pretty similar procedures and having to deal with some similar problems,” Lewis says.
“It’s sort of a pet therapy where people can relate a little bit more with those pets that have gone through things that they’ve gone through as well.”
It’s that need to relate to others that pediatric plastic surgeons such as Taylor say is important, because kids with with facial differences need to feel as normal as possible.
“Our passion is to help these children and their families become normal parts of society,” Taylor says. “They need to be able to interact with other people on a very human level.”
SInce that time, Lentil has visited hundreds of patients at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
He’s enormously popular there, and children such as hospital patient Danny Pfeiffer have bonded with him.
Pfeiffer, 14, has a genetic condition called Saethre-Chotzen syndrome, in which the skull bones fuse prematurely, preventing the skull from growing normally and affecting the shape of the head and face. He says Lentil has helped him deal with the many complications that come with facial surgeries.
“He doesn’t look like, you know, a regular dog,” says Pfeiffer. “So that kind of makes him special, so it probably makes kids who have something that I have, makes them feel special.”
Since his successful surgery in May, Lentil has been able to eat and drink without help.
He’s already been the mascot for the Lentil Festival in Philadelphia to raise money for craniofacial awareness, and he just returned from a Children’s Craniofacial Association kids’ camp in Orlando, Florida, a gathering place for children nationwide with craniofacial conditions. Pop star Cher serves as a national spokeswoman for the group.
When he isn’t traveling, Lentil greets fans at Condefer’s Philadelphia pet shop. They come to thank him for his work in raising awareness. Fans call him “the Bean” and themselves “Beanstalkers.” Meanwhile, Lentil’s Facebook page just keeps growing.
Condefer still can’t get over her pet’s impact.
“Seeing him meet these children — and he would just go up to them, sleep on their lap and you could see how they related to him and how he related to these children — it was wonderful,” she says.
“He’s here for a reason, and he’s made it for a reason, and that’s what makes him special.”