Josh the West Highland Terrier mix had a rough start in life. He was just 48 hours old when a human decided his life wasn’t worth living. Born with a cleft palate, which can cause difficulty eating, little Josh wasn’t given the chance to try nursing from his mother. Instead, the tiny puppy was whisked away from his litter and taken by suspected backyard breeders to an animal shelter for euthanasia.
“I wish the people that took him into the shelter could see him now,” says Tina Lythgoe, who adopted Josh after receiving a phone call from Leave No Paws Behind, a foster-based rescue specializing in special needs animals. “I would love for them to see his face and know he’s still alive.”
Thanks to Lythgoe’s care, Josh isn’t just alive — he is thriving. An experienced animal rescuer, Lythgoe knew caring for two-day-old Josh would be a challenge, but she was prepared. She would keep Josh with her 24 hours a day, as he could accompany her to work at her mother’s dog-grooming business. Josh thrived under the constant attention and began exceeding expectations right away. “The minute they called me, I figured I would have to tube feed him, but I didn’t,” she says.
Unlike famous cleft palate puppy Lentil the French Bulldog, Josh the Westie got his nutrients without major interventions. “I bottle-fed him until he could eat on his own, and now he eats dry food just great.”
As Josh grew, Lythgoe and her vet kept a close eye on his mouth. “When he was a baby, the cleft palate was barely cracked, but as he started to grow the crack started to grow, too,” Lythgoe says.
Now nine months old, Josh is getting to be a big boy, and despite his expanded cleft, his prognosis is as good as his appetite. “He’s not going to need surgery,” Lythgoe says.
Josh’s cleft palate isn’t the only thing that set him apart from his litter mates. He has one wandering eye, and his front paws are significantly larger than his tiny back feet. “The doctor seems to think he may be inbred, because of all the little things that are wrong with him,” explains Lythgoe.
According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, genetics is the most common cause of cleft plates among dogs. Lythgoe says that’s exactly why animal lovers should not support backyard breeders and instead turn to shelters and animal rescues. “Of course we want everyone to adopt, not shop.”
With his unique smile and mismatched feet, Josh doesn’t look like the typical Westie, but his special features aren’t slowing him down in the slightest. “He has no idea that he’s different,” says Lythgoe. “He has no idea at all.”
While Josh may not understand that he’s different, his growing legion of Facebook fans sure do, and they appreciate every snapshot of his special little smile. Lythgoe says Josh isn’t just drawing attention to lovability of animals born with birth defects, he’s also helping humans who were born different feel a little bit better about themselves.
“I get a lot of messages from people with birth defects, like women who have cleft palates, who say they’re having a hard day and need to see a Josh video.”
As of this writing, Josh’s special smile has attracted more than 51,000 Facebook friends. With his shareable face ending up on more and more feeds every day, maybe one day Josh’s picture will appear on the screens of the people who wanted to put him to sleep when he was just a puppy.
“They didn’t understand that birth defects don’t need to be a death sentence,” Lythgoe explains. “Even though [the animals] have something wrong with them, with a little extra attention they can live a long and happy life.”
At just nine months old, Josh’s life hasn’t been long (yet), but it sure has been happy. He still gets to go with Lythgoe to the grooming shop each workday and spend plenty of time cuddling with fellow rescue dog, 15-year-old Lambchop, whom Lythgoe also adopted through Leave No Paws Behind.
While Josh enjoys puppyhood, Lythgoe is making sure to use his expanding social media pawprint for good. “He makes a lot of people smile, I know this because I get all these messages. We just want to help.”
The messages Lythgoe gets from Josh’s international Facebook friends are varied. Some of his supporters see Josh as an advocate for animals born with physical differences, while others view him as the poster boy for the anti-backyard breeding movement.
One thing all Josh’s fans have in common is that they can’t understand why anyone would want to euthanize this puppy with the special smile. Josh’s natural cheerfulness is contagious, even through the Internet.
“He just makes people happy,” says Lythgoe.
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About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but Specter the kitten and GhostBuster the dog make her fur family complete. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.