by Celeste Huttes
He was so full of life.
Watching the lively baby Bulldog—just 24 hours old—in the halls of the clinic, veterinary technician Jennifer (“Jeni”) Hudson couldn’t make sense of the fact that this would be the pup’s first—and last—trip to the vet.
“I was watching him, and he was active and showed no signs of struggling in any way,” recalls Jeni.
But because the pup was born with a cleft palate, the vet had recommended euthanasia. According to Jeni, this is standard practice because the cleft (an abnormal opening in the roof of the mouth) creates an air gap that prevents the puppy from suckling. Without intervention, a cleft palate can often lead to death by starvation or aspiration pneumonia.
Determined to give this Bulldog a second chance at life, Jeni and a fellow vet tech (also named Jenny, but affectionately known as “Rabbit”) convinced the vet and the dog’s owner to let them take the pup home and try to keep him alive.
First Newborn Rescue
“If we tried and failed, at least we had tried,” says Jeni, who faced skepticism and scrutiny from her colleagues. “It was intense in every way.”
As it turns out, they did anything but fail. Today, that tiny Bulldog, known as “JJ,” is four years old and a happy, healthy member of Rabbit’s family.
JJ did more than prove the experts wrong. He inspired Jeni and her sister Brandi to found Hudson’s Halfway Home in 2012—a rescue that gives underdogs everywhere a second chance at life.
“We chose the name to represent a stopping place from the dog’s past to its future,” says Jeni. “We help them find a new life.”
Based in Decatur, Illinois, Hudson’s Halfway Home is one of only three rescues whose sole purpose is helping special needs newborns.
Today, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization has grown into a network of six foster homes. Many of the foster parents, like “Rabbit” and Jeni, work or have worked in the veterinary field.
“We are completely home-based. These puppies need care every two hours, so it’s not practical to have a separate facility,” says Jeni. “They are raised as part of the family.”
Because theirs is a low-intake operation, “there is no need to place them in a rush,” says Jeni. “We can take our time to find the right home.”
But there is no time to waste when a puppy is born with a cleft palate and cannot get the nourishment it needs naturally. That’s why the puppies that come to Hudson’s Halfway Home are often only hours old.
For the first few weeks, the puppy is tube-fed every two hours using a small catheter that delivers food directly from the mouth to the stomach.
Around three weeks of age, cleft puppies are hand-fed kibble one piece at a time. At four to five weeks, the cleft pups are often eating on their own and drinking from the kind of water bottle used by rabbits and guinea pigs.
“By six to eight weeks, most cleft palate puppies can be treated for the most part like ‘normal’ pups,” says Jeni. To put it simply, she says, “We’re saving cleft puppies with time.”
Secondary ailments can accompany their cleft palate patients, and medical intervention depends on each dog’s unique needs. However, based on experience from dogs like JJ—who underwent five surgeries that did not fully correct his cleft palate—Hudson’s Halfway Home rarely pursues surgery for its cleft palate puppies. In fact, Hudson’s volunteers have successfully raised more than 37 cleft puppies to adulthood, with only three surgeries.
No Pup Turned Away
In 2016, Hudson’s Halfway Home reached a major milestone with its 100th intake. To cast a wide net for the perfect homes, the organization welcomes out-of-state adoptions. One cleft palate Pit Bull was adopted by a Pennsylvania woman, also born with a cleft palate, who planned to train her to be a therapy dog.
“We never deny a cleft-affected puppy of any breed,” says Jeni. “We have yet to turn one away.”
They also welcome dogs with other special needs—dogs like Harriet.
The multicolored Yorkie was born with a liver dysfunction and without knee caps in her rear legs. But after months of extensive rehabilitation to strengthen her leg muscles, she—amazingly—gets around fine. She can even run.
Running, however, will never be possible for Hartley, a hospice case with a progressive, mysterious neurological disease. Though she can’t walk normally, the Boston Terrier has mastered the art of what Jeni calls “land swimming.” Most important: she is happy.
“Hartley plays and kisses and loves to be loved,” says Jeni. “She enjoys life, and we have to enjoy the time we have with her.”
It is Pip’s story, however, that is most likely to bring tears to Jeni’s eyes. Born with a cleft palate, the French Bulldog was no more than five weeks old, tipping the scales at just 10 ounces, when he came to Hudson’s Halfway Home all the way from New Mexico.
It soon became clear that Pip also suffered from hydrocephalus (water on the brain), which Jeni was able to successfully manage with over-the-counter Prilosec. At 16 weeks, “the hydro was not affecting him. He was doing great, going on three pounds,” recalls Jeni. “He was very connected to me and I was very connected to him.”
But then, Jeni began to notice Pip’s rear legs moving in odd ways. After overcoming so many challenges, X-rays revealed a new one: progressive scoliosis. The cruel disease eventually began crushing Pip’s esophagus. Of many difficult decisions Jeni has had to make, putting her beloved Pip down was among the most difficult.
“He was my heart dog. It was a major blow,” says Jeni. “But sometimes their bodies are just not made for this world. We can’t save them all, but we can give them a chance and show them love while they are here.”
And, directly and indirectly, they save those they can.
Changing Public Perception
Beyond the hands-on help they provide, the rescue’s success stories are changing the way people think about cleft palate pups and other special needs dogs.
“Four years ago, we had no reference point for what to do,” says Jeni, who has forged a path into this uncharted territory. Today she hosts a Facebook group on the care and support of cleft palate pups.
“These dogs are here and living great lives,” she says. These dogs are teachers, too—masters at living in the moment. Their simple joy for life teaches us all to celebrate who we are.
Not long ago, Jeni asked her 13-year-old daughter Keilei what she had learned from living with special needs dogs. Their rescue dog, Zylee, a Brussels Griffon with a cleft palate and seizure disorder, quickly came to mind.
“I look at Zylee and can’t tell there’s anything wrong with her,” Keilei said. “So now when I look at people, I wonder what they might be going through that I can’t see.”
Beginning with that fateful encounter with JJ, the dogs from Hudson’s Halfway Home have shown Jeni her purpose in life.
“This work is not easy, but it’s worth it,” says Jeni. “If they show me they want to live, I will fight for them.”
With arms wide open, this rare breed of rescuer will always make room for the dogs she calls “perfectly imperfect.” But pity has no place at Hudson’s Halfway Home. “Don’t feel sorry for them. They don’t feel sorry for themselves or see themselves as different,” says Jeni. “Let them show you what they can do.”