Philly’s ‘Best Friends Bash’ pairs pediatric and pet patients

Lentil helps teach children with cleft lips it's OK to be different. Credit: Paige Ozaroski, Metro
Lentil helps teach children with cleft lips it’s OK to be different. Credit: Paige Ozaroski, Metro

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and The School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have teamed up to help children with craniofacial conditions cope and to encourage the sharing of ideas between practitioners who treat humans and those who care for their four-legged counterparts.

During the inaugural “Best Friends Bash” Wednesday night, 20 of CHOP’s craniofacial patients were introduced to four Penn Vet dogs with similar conditions.

Penn Vet Assistant Professor of Dentistry and Oral Surgery Dr. John Lewis said planning for the event began after he gave a lecture on animal craniofacial reconstructions at Penn’s Center for Human Appearance.

“As I was putting together that presentation, it came to me that wouldn’t it be a great thing to be able to bring these craniofacial patients together, both humans and animals, and have sort of a specialized pet therapy program?” Lewis said.

Researchers said children can learn a lot from the way their furry friends deal with disabilities.

“An animal doesn’t care about his function or appearance, he’s just unconditional,” Chief of CHOP’s Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Division Dr. Scott Bartlett said.

“They still wag their tail even though they’ve got a deformity. They cope, they manage, and I think they really become an inspiration for children who have similar deformities.

“I think the way dogs approach children with facial deformities is important, too. To a dog, there’s no such thing as facial difference, it all looks the same.”

But the patients aren’t the only beneficiaries – the event also encouraged physicians to learn from one another.

“We’re hoping some good things will come out of it, not only from an inspirational standpoint, but also from a collaboration standpoint,” Lewis said.

“We’re hoping to interact more with our colleagues down at the Children’s Hospital and have some of the insights that can be gleaned from the veterinary side hopefully benefit human patients, and vice versa.”

He said though pet therapy is fairly well established, the “Best Friends Bash” is unique in that both patients and “therapists” are suffering similar ailments.

“To my knowledge, the event the first of its kind when it comes to bringing veterinary and human craniofacial patients together to share stories and to inspire each other,” Lewis said.

“So, hopefully, it will take off from here.”

Robert Walton, 8, is shown above with Buddy along with Buddy's owner Geoff MacKenzie. Credit: Paige Ozaroski, Metro
Robert Walton, 8, is shown above with Buddy along with Buddy’s owner Geoff MacKenzie. Credit: Paige Ozaroski, Metro

Weird science?

Exactly how much do human and veterinary medicine overlap? More than most may think.

“People are sometimes surprised – ‘I never knew dogs could get a cleft palate,’ or ‘I never knew animals could get oral cancer,’” Lewis said. “But pretty much everything people get, dogs and cats are at risk of getting, as well.”

Bartlett said “there’s been a sort of back and forth between veterinarians and physicians for years.”

Most physicians have at some point in their career cared for animals – Bartlett when he was in training 30 years ago treated an orangutan at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.

And he said many treatment techniques pioneered in humans are now being used on animals, a trend he thinks will continue to grow.

“As people become more and more vested in their animals and more willing to pay for veterinary care, I think they will adopt more and more sophisticated techniques,” Bartlett said.

“The sky’s the limit – it’s a matter of what price is society willing to pay.”


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