SPRING HILL — Within hours of the bull mastiff puppy's birth Dec. 14, Latrecia Lollie could tell there was something wrong her.
While her three brothers and sisters were nursing comfortably at their mother's side, the first of two female puppies wasn't. In fact, she was struggling to get any nourishment at all.
An emergency trip to the veterinarian revealed the cause: the puppy had been born with a cleft palate, a birth defect in which tissue in the roof of the mouth fails to form properly. In the case of Lollie's puppy, a pencil lead-size gap along the hard and soft palate interfered with its ability to take in its mother's milk.
So began a long process that for the past two weeks has kept Lollie on a round-the-clock schedule to care for the puppy, appropriately named Miracle.
"She probably would have been dead by now," Lollie said Tuesday as she held the 1-pound puppy whose eyes are still closed. "But she's a fighter. She's going to make it."
In fact, Lollie's veterinarian suggested that the puppy be euthanized in an effort to avoid the large expense and effort it would take to keep Miracle alive.
Lollie, who has raised puppies previously after breeding another dog she owns, would have no such thought. Instead, she vowed to do anything to keep Miracle alive so that she can eventually be cared for by her mother, Shyloh.
But for the 30-year-old University of South Florida student with no veterinary experience, that meant learning how to feed and care for an animal that constantly faced life-threatening medical situations.
First, Lollie had to come up with a way to feed the puppy. At her veterinarian's suggestion, she tried feeding her through a plastic tube every three hours. But a few days before Christmas, Miracle developed a nasal infection that turned into pneumonia, requiring massive amounts of antibiotics.
To comfort the puppy, Lollie spent hundreds of dollars to set up an intensive care clinic in her bedroom, where she could administer vaporizer and nebulizer treatments twice daily. And though Miracle's condition steadily improved, it didn't come without intensive monitoring from Lollie.
"I only get a few hours of sleep every night," she said. "I'm told that it's going to go on for at least a few more weeks."
So far, Lollie's perseverance has paid off. Though only a third of the size of the rest of the litter, Miracle is active and, for the most part, healthy.
But Dr. Bill Farmer, a veterinarian with Westside Animal Clinic who has looked after Miracle, said that could change at any time.
"She's not out of the woods yet," Farmer said. "(Lollie) has done a great job so far, but the puppy still faces a lot of potential problems. It's going to take a lot of time and expense to get her healthy."
Farmer said several surgeries will be needed to repair the cleft palate, an occurrence that is not uncommon in dogs. He estimates the total cost could easily top $1,000.
Although her finances as a college student are limited, Lollie said she will be glad to pay whatever the cost.
"I'm hoping I can get a break on the vet bill," she said. "But it's really important to me. Miracle is the light of my life, as well as a lot of other people I know. I don't think she would still be here if it weren't for the prayers and encouragement from my family and friends."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.