Jenn Clayton can’t look at her dog Ruby without breaking into a grin.
“Her smile melts me,” Clayton tells The Dodo.
“She has one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen on a dog.”
Besides Ruby’s happy face, Clayton says she has expressions for when she’s feeling serious, worried or mischievous.
But Ruby’s face isn’t just expressive — it’s also unique. The 3-year-old pit bull mix was born with a cleft lip and palate, the latter of which eventually needed surgery. “She has gaps on both sides of her nose where her lip never grew together,” Clayton explains. “The cleft palate prior to surgery was just a hole that ran straight down the middle of her palate, all the way from the front to the very back.”
Clayton doesn’t exactly know what caused Ruby’s cleft lip and palate, but it probably has to do with genetics and environmental factors. “The general consensus is that clefts are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors,” she explains. “It’s considered to have a genetic component, so breeders are discouraged from breeding an animal that has had a cleft palate pup in the past. But environmental factors such as Mom’s exposure to certain toxins during pregnancy can also contribute.”
While the cleft lip is more cosmetic, the cleft palate was a serious problem that almost cost Ruby her life. When Ruby was a newborn puppy, it prevented her from nursing.
“I volunteer for the Utah Animal Advocacy Foundation, an organization that specializes in the rescue and rehabilitation of ‘special needs’ animals,” Clayton says. “Ruby’s breeder sent us an email within hours of Ruby’s birth. Since I work full-time and knew that Ruby would require round-the-clock care, I encouraged the breeder to take her into her vet and learn how to tube-feed and care for Ruby on her own. But a couple of days later, I got another email saying that Ruby was dying.”
The problem was, Ruby hadn’t gotten any nutrition from her mom — she was essentially starving to death.
Clayton asked the breeder to immediately take Ruby to the vet. When Clayton went to meet them there, she was shocked at what she saw. “Ruby was in bad shape,” Clayton says. “She was very thin and dehydrated, and her breathing was labored.”
The first vet who examined Ruby recommended euthanasia. A second vet recommended the same. They even got a third vet on the phone — he, too, said Ruby should be put to sleep.
But Clayton couldn’t do it. “As I sat there with Ruby, trying to make that impossibly difficult decision, she lifted her head and started to try to suck on my finger,” she recalls. “I knew then that she was a fighter and that she wanted to live. I just couldn’t bring myself to put her to sleep when I knew that all she needed was food.”Clayton took Ruby home and started tube-feeding her every two hours, and she fell in love with this funny-faced pup. “It didn’t take long for me to fall head over heels in love,” Clayton says. “We’ve been joined at the hip ever since.”
When Clayton had to go to work, her family stepped in to help. “My mom (a retired nurse) and my sister (a medical assistant) both learned how to tube-feed and took turns caring for Ruby,” Clayton says.
Ruby got better quickly. When she was 4 months old, Clayton flew Ruby from their home in Utah to Pennsylvania to get Ruby surgery by a vet who specializes in cleft palate repair. “Her surgery was a total success and she was able to eat canned puppy food for the very first time just hours after surgery,” Clayton says. “She’s been eating normally and growing like a weed ever since.”
Now that Ruby had her surgery, she is able to act like a normal puppy. “Ruby loves going for walks, playing tug and meeting new people,” Clayton says. “When she’s out with me or playing with the other dogs, she’s as crazy and hyper as the next dog.”
Ruby also knows how to stay calm, especially around the tiny puppies and kittens Clayton fosters. “She’s learned that she has to hold very still if she wants to visit with the teeny tiny puppies and kittens, and she does it without much prompting from me,” Clayton explains. “She’ll automatically flop on her side and hold very, very still while the baby animal cuddles and explores. I have pictures of her cuddling with every puppy and kitten we’ve fostered since Ruby joined our family.”
Ruby also adores people, especially kids. She once made a special connection with a little girl who has a cleft lip. “The child immediately reached out to touch Ruby’s nose and lip, and Ruby gave her the sweetest kisses until the child was giggling and Ruby’s tail was wagging so fast we thought it might fall off,” Clayton says. “I’ll never forget it.”
Since Ruby arrived in Clayton’s life, she’s been inspired to rescue other dogs and cats who have been born with cleft lips or palates. Clayton even drove two dogs — a yellow lab named Pippa and a Great Dane named Philly — to the same vet in Pennsylvania to get cleft palate surgery.
“We like to say that Ruby and the other animals we rescue are ‘perfectly imperfect.'” Clayton says. “Thankfully, more and more rescuers, breeders and veterinarians are realizing that these animals do not need to automatically be euthanized as most can thrive with the right care. In the meantime, we’ll continue to spread the word and do our part to help save as many of these special animals as possible.”
To see more photos of Ruby’s charming smile, you can visit her Facebook page.