As a very good band once said, all you need is love.
Ivy and her cat, Sergeant Pepper, both with cleft palettes, cuddled on the couch
Credit: Courtesy of Caitlin Cusack

Sometimes, when we're facing a challenge in life, the greatest comfort lies just in knowing that we're not alone. It can be easy for people—especially children—to feel isolated due to circumstances or personal challenges. In those times, just knowing that there's someone else like you can do a world of good in helping to normalize your situation. For Caitlin Cusack and her daughter Ivy, that someone came in the form of a grey tabby kitten.

While Cusack was pregnant with daughter Ivy, doctors informed the family that their little one would be born with a cleft lip and possibly a cleft palate. Clefts are a common birth defect and are almost always correctable, but the news your child will start life with any kind of challenge can be distressing, especially for first-time parents like the Cusaks. But along with her husband, Cusack (a special education teacher), quickly began learning more about the condition. She says that the more they learned, the more confident they became.

"Once the shock wore off, we had so much time to prepare," Cusack tells Daily Paws. "We were able to show up to her delivery with specialized bottles and things that we might need for her arrival."

The Cusacks welcomed a happy, healthy Ivy into the world in 2019. Within her first 18 months of life, the toddler underwent successful surgeries to repair her lip and palate and developed a deeply held love for cats, be they real or simply stuffed toys. The family already had an adult cat in the home, but they considered getting a younger kitten who could match Ivy's energy level. That was when one of Caitlin's friends shared with her a post from the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) about a kitten named Sargent Pepper.

Immediately, two things stood out to Caitlin about the kitten's story: first, her husband has always been a huge Beatles fan, so the name Sargent Pepper felt like a natural fit. But even more fittingly, Sargent Pepper had been born with a cleft lip and palate.

"I had seen some similar stories online [about animals with cleft palates] but I didn't know how common it was," she says. "So when my best friend shared that photo, it just felt like a sign."

PAWS used donations to fund the surgeries Sargent Pepper needed for his cleft lip and palate, and the kitten is now just as happy and healthy as his new best friend. Just as Cusack had hoped, the young kitten and toddler match one another well in energy and spirit, and spend lots of time together cuddling and playing with each other.

"Sargent Pepper's favorite spot is on the back of the couch," Cusack says. "So Ivy will climb up there and lay down and put her head on him."

Ivy and her cat, Sergeant Pepper, both with cleft palettes, cuddled on the couch

Ivy and Sargent Pepper's special bond is a direct result of the hard work of PAWS' staff, volunteers, and network of pet foster parents—all of whom work tirelessly to save the lives of animals in need and find them forever homes. And while the organization helps many pets find happy homes just like the Cusack's, Sargent Pepper and Ivy's story recently helped the shelter secure a $25,000 grant through the Petco Love Stories campaign. The unique duo were one of hundreds of incredible pet adoption tales submitted to the contest, and was selected by Petco Love and BOBS from Skechers as a winner and grant recipient on Dec. 1, 2021.

As Ivy grows and begins to have conversations about her birth and surgeries, it's Cusack's' hope that Sargent Pepper will help serve as a bridge to Ivy's understanding that even if she doesn't have any friends or family members with the same experience, she's not alone.

"When it comes to your children, you want them to know that there are others like them out there. Someday, when she starts to reason with it and starts to understand her circumstances, it might be a little bit harder to process her journey, " Cusack says. "So just knowing that she has a buddy and someone who's gone through the same thing can be huge."