Duo, now almost 4 months old, was born with a congenital defect called diprosopus, and has two operational faces

By Laura Barcella
November 06, 2019 01:44 PM
Credit: Dr. Ralph Tran

It’s not every day you encounter a kitten with two faces, even if you’re a veterinarian who’s highly experienced with all things feline. Dr. Ralph Tran had one of these rare encounters a little over three months ago, when a friend introduced him to a tiny kitten her cat had just given birth to.

Tran was in the middle of a cross-country move from New York City to San Diego when he got a flat tire — and, as he was waiting for help to arrive, he received an interesting text: his friend’s cat had just given birth to a “Janus kitten.”

Credit: Dr. Ralph Tran

“We were stranded just half an hour away from where [my friend] lived,” Tran tells PEOPLE. The woman’s cat had rejected the all-black kitten, likely because of the little one’s health condition, so the two-faced neonate would need round-the-clock human care to stay alive.

Fortunately, Tran has plenty of experience caring for neonatal kittens, having previously worked at the ASPCA kitten nursery in Manhattan. He agreed to bring the kitten — whom he promptly named Duo, for obvious reasons — on the road with him to join the rest of his cat menagerie (he has eight other cats, plus a number of birds).

Tran wasn’t sure what to expect when he first laid eyes on the special-needs kitten. “I really didn’t know much about what condition she had,” he says. “I assumed she was a typical Siamese twin, but she’s not.”

Duo has a very rare congenital defect called diprosopus, or craniofacial duplication — she has one body and one head, but two faces, both of which are “fully operational,” Tran says. “Both her mouths meow separately, and both noses are fully functional.”

Credit: Dr. Ralph Tran

She isn’t the only cat to have been born with this condition: one two-faced cat named Frank and Louie lived to the ripe old age of 15 (he even earned recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s oldest Janus cat). But, sadly, most cats who are born this way don’t live longer than a few days.

After arriving at his new California home, Tran continued feeding his little patient every few hours — Duo had to be tube-fed, and later syringe-fed, because she wouldn’t drink from a bottle. Because she was “snotty and sneezy,” he also had to treat her for a series of respiratory infections.

It became clear quickly that one of Duo’s eyes isn’t viable, and because it’s a source of infection and irritation for her, she will need to have it removed when she’s big enough to undergo eye enucleation surgery.

Credit: Dr. Ralph Tran

Because of Duo’s special needs, it’s taken the fuzzball longer than usual to learn typical kitten behaviors, like how to walk, play, eat, and go to the bathroom without Tran’s assistance (she still won’t use a litter box, so he keeps her in an enclosed area with wee-wee pads). Duo just “didn’t quite develop mentally like other kittens her age,” Tran says.

“It was roughly around eight weeks of age, maybe nine weeks, when she started recognizing the other cats, toys, and me,” he explains. “Now she runs [over] when she sees me.”

Duo also recently began eating from a bowl, though she ends up wearing most of her food instead of consuming it. “She gets into conflicts about which mouth gets to eat, because both mouths want to eat,” he says.

Credit: Dr. Ralph Tran

Because of her struggles with food, Duo is about half the size of a typical kitten her age, and at a little over three months old, she’s developmentally equivalent to a six-week-old kitten. Tran isn’t sure how big she’ll ultimately grow up to be.

The kitten experienced a health setback last week when she had what appeared to be a seizure. Though she recovered quickly, it remains unclear exactly what the future holds for Duo. But the array of videos Tran posts on Duo’s Facebook page make it abundantly clear that she’s happy. “She plays with toys now, and she likes to follow the other cats. One cat will play with her; the other cats just look at her funny,” he says.

Duo is safe, loved and with exactly the right person to meet her unique set of needs. And when she’s finally ready for her eye removal surgery, Tran says he plans to “do x-rays, CT scans and MRIs to get a better idea of how she’s constructed.”