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Patient Spotlight: Mouth Surgery Gives Injured Puppy a New Life

Knuckles Brad and Yoshi
Brad Brittain holds his two dogs, Knuckles, left, and Yoshi, right. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

Connie Lilley is known as the one to call if an animal needs help in Rocky Mount. She’s not part of a rescue group, but her life is dedicated to rescuing.

Brad Yoshi and Connie
Brad Brittain kisses Yoshi. Connie Lilley, right, is so excited that the puppy is being adopted. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

When a call came from a group of children volunteering with an organization that repairs houses for seniors and those who are disabled, she answered immediately. The children said they had spent two days trying to coax a pit mix puppy next door to come up to the fence so they could get a better look at her facial injury. 

The owner of the 3-month-old puppy said the dog had injured herself by biting a live wire in the backyard and he had not taken her for veterinary care for two weeks. He gave the dog named Coco permanently to Lilley, who went straight to her veterinarian. Coco received the first round of her puppy vaccines and was referred to the NC State Veterinary Hospital’s soft tissue and oncologic surgery service for her mouth injury.

Coco needed surgery to remove some of her teeth and part of her lower left jaw where the exposed tissue and bone had died and started to decay. Clinicians were able to preserve some of her jaw bone, which meant she was less likely to have complications from a drifting jaw, common after jaw surgeries. 

Coco's injured jaw
Coco’s injury before coming to the NC State Veterinary Hospital. Photo submitted by Connie Lilley.

During the two-hour surgery, clinicians removed some of Coco’s baby teeth, from her canine to her molars, and about 5 centimeters of her jaw from the premolars to the molars. The mucous membranes that line the interior of the mouth and cheek pouch were brought together and used to close the gap and cover the remaining healthy exposed bone in her mouth. 

The team also placed a feeding tube connected to her esophagus in Coco’s neck, so she could eat and receive her medications while her mouth healed. 

“NC State has a dedicated surgery team and nursing staff to ensure our patients get great care from the start of surgery, through their hospitalization until discharge,” said Annemarieke de Vlaming, a small animal surgery resident who helped with the surgery. 

After two weeks of extra care at the hospital, including tube feeding, antibiotics and a special mouthwash for wound care, Coco was ready for a forever home. She was set to join the Brittain family in Durham, which includes Brad and his current dog, Knuckles, a pit mix who looks like a giant version of Coco. 

I’m a huge Staffordshire/pitty fan and as soon as I saw her, I fell in love with her,” Brittain said. “Despite her mouth being severely injured and infected, she did nothing but wag her tail and try to kiss me, even though it was clearly painful for her.”

Knuckles and Yoshi
Yoshi gives Knuckles lots of kisses. They love to play together. Photo submitted by Brad Brittain

Part of Coco’s tongue was also severely ulcerated. As it healed, it curved to the left, continuously sticking out of her mouth in the space where part of the jaw was removed and the lip reconstructed. This cute quirk reminded Brittain of the Nintendo character Yoshi, a dinosaur who uses his tongue to eat enemies or grab objects in video games. Coco was renamed Yoshi, leaving her past behind her and with a new future ahead.

After a few weeks of recovery, Yoshi’s mouth was all healed, and she transitioned to eating dry puppy food. 

“Her recovery is going great,” Brittain said. “She had her feeding tube removed the day I took her home and as far as her mouth goes, you’d never know anything was ever wrong if it weren’t for her derpy tongue sticking out.” 

Knuckles is also settling into a new life with a little sister. Since she’s a puppy, Yoshi constantly chews and nibbles on Knuckles’ neck, face and ears. It’s her favorite activity. Her second favorite is unrelentingly jumping all over him as he lies quietly on the floor. 

“Yoshi and Knuckles are doing wonderfully together,” Brittain said. “The first night I brought her home they immediately began wrestling in the backyard and she hasn’t left his side since.” To learn more about the soft tissue and oncologic surgery service, visit their web page.

~Brittany Sweeney/NC State Veterinary MedicineNote: Photography for this story was taken prior to enhanced COVID-19 safety and mask protocol established for CVM and veterinary hospital faculty, staff and students, as well as the general public. The latest information on our protocol can be found here: