By Victoria Elliott
Fostering Our Special Needs Animals
“I fell into it by necessity,” says Lisa Velenovsky, a volunteer with King Street Cats.
Velenovsky was first introduced to special needs animal care when she began fostering a kitten with congenital deformities. Like Velenovsky, Patti Gross, also a volunteer with King Street Cats, says her initial work with special needs cats was unintentional, when an undernourished and immunocompromised kitten was placed in her care. Both fosters learned as they went along, becoming a more valuable resource to the organization as a specialist in the field of special needs animal care.
What makes an animal “special needs”?
Special needs can encompass a wide range of differences in ability from the average animal. These differences can be:
– Congenital (differences that the animal is born with) or developed over time due to age, injury, or illness.
– “Invisible” differences, such as blindness or deafness, or differences that are obvious at first glance, such as loss of a limb.
– Static needs – differences that are fixed in nature and do not require much change in care planning over time – or dynamic needs, such as autoimmune disorders, progressive diseases, and other illnesses where care needs may change suddenly or evolve over time.
Sharing a story of a time she caught Mitte, her foster cat with Cerebellar Hypoplasia, halfway up a screen door, Gross says: “Nobody told him he’s different. He just climbed up the screen like any kitten would.” Cerebellar Hypoplasia is a condition of an underdeveloped cerebellum that causes difficulties in physical coordination, often causing tremors and/or a wobbling walk. Mitte’s sister, Marissa, also has special needs – she only has three legs. With both cats, they have differences in ability from the average cat, but their conditions are static in nature and both have a normal life expectancy.
Petrie, a cat in the care of Velenovsky, is a good example of dynamic special needs. Petrie has dealt with Feline Plasma Cell Pododermatitis (an inflammatory condition causing sore, puffy paw pads), acquired nasopharyngeal stenosis (a nasal passage disorder causing regurgitation of food and anorexia), and megaesophagus (a condition causing an enlarged esophagus, also causing regurgitation of food and anorexia). Fosters of special needs cats like Velenovsky become quite proficient in rattling off the complex medical diagnoses of the animals in their care.
When Petrie came to Velenovsky’s attention, he was just 5 lbs. and was likely to be euthanized at the shelter where he was being held if he stayed there. Velenovsky recognized in Petrie a will to live – he had no intention of giving up. In her care, Petrie received stent surgery to expand his nasal passage. This surgery corrected his breathing and his megaesophagus resolved itself. Velenovsky is proud to report that Petrie currently weighs 12.5 lbs.
Velenovsky shared her advice for care for dynamic special needs animals: “be willing to look for and consider new avenues of treatment and to try new things.” The best path of treatment may not be the first one tried, so an openness to new methods of treatment is necessary for this type of caregiving.
One of the biggest aspects of special needs animal care is determining quality of life. For fosters, this means weighing the difficulties caused by the illness or differences in ability with the animals’ overall health and comfort.
Gross has become a de facto cat hospice caregiver and says that she can now see the signs of an animal who is done fighting. She has cared for several cats who have crossed the rainbow bridge over the past year, including one of her own. On multiple occasions, cats who have continued fighting through the uncertainty of shelter care begin to decline once they are in the safety of Gross’ home. This hospice care work is bittersweet: despite the sadness of end of life care, Gross knows she is providing a safe haven, “giving them a chance to be in a home, in a sunny spot, doing what they want for as long as they want.”
Despite the challenges that come with special needs animal care, Gross wanted people to know that it is “very rewarding, very heartwarming to take care of a fragile, uncertain creature… and watch them blossom.”
Velenovsky echoed this sentiment: “special needs cats appreciate the care they get – maybe even more than regular animals” and that there is a “special bond and special joy” between special needs animals and their caregivers.
If you are considering getting involved with special needs animal care:
– Be patient. The path of care can be a roller coaster.
– Be adaptable. Focus on what will improve the animal’s limitations and understand that the process for finding the best care options can be trial and error.
– Recognize that every animal is different. Even within animals with the same condition, learn what works best for each individual situation.
– Previous experience with special needs animals is not necessary, so long as there is a willingness to learn.
– Understand your limitations and be realistic about your ability to provide proper care.
– Never be afraid to ask for help.
– Have a good support system. Rely on the animal rescue system, trusted veterinarian(s), and other fosters/special needs animal adopters.
– If adopting, keep the rescue organization informed of any issues.
– Cornell Feline Health Center: https://www2.vet.cornell.edu/
– National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nih.gov/
– Pet Health Network: http://www.pethealthnetwork.com/
– PetCareRx: http://www.petcarerx.com/
Victoria Elliott is an animal rescue advocate. She lives in Alexandria with two brown tabby boys of her own.