Pets, Places, & Things, Points on Pets

Adopting a Pet with Special Needs

Adopting a Pet with Special Needs

What does it mean to adopt a pet with special needs? Adopting and caring for a pet with special needs can be quite a rewarding experience and often not as harrowing as imagined. Pets with special needs come in all shapes and sizes with varying needs. Some experience mental challenges, like anxiety or depression, while others experience physical challenges like missing limbs and sight or hearing loss.  Others experience internal challenges, like heart or kidney disease. Aging pets also fit into this category because many will experience changes to their sight, hearing or organ functions during their later years.

What is it like to care for a pet with special needs? It can be difficult until you understand the pet’s situation and what is needed. Once you understand what’s going on, routine sets in and whatever seemed abnormal in the beginning rapidly becomes the new norm.

Bean and Jazzy

Two of our three cats have special needs, and I’m happy and blessed to tell you I’ve had them since they were kittens and they are now 14 and 15 years old.  Mya, or Bean as we like to call her, is experiencing hearing loss, a common ailment in senior cats. Jasper, aka Jazzy or Buster McKittyface, suffers occasional seizures, has lost sight in one eye and recently developed kidney disease, a possible side effect from years of taking phenobarbital to reduce the frequency and severity of the seizures.

Bean is basically the same cat she always was with the addition of more frequent and louder meowing (often in the dead of the night) and new acts of bravery involving the vacuum monster, which no longer frightens her because she can’t hear it. We haven’t had to change our routine other than making an effort not to sneak up on her.  Jazzy requires meds twice a day (hooray for pill pockets!) and though his seizures are mostly controlled now, he still has them occasionally so we try to limit the amount of hard surfaces he could slide into during an episode.  He enjoys eating, sleeping, lazing around, stealing our popcorn and bothering us for breakfast at 4am.  On most days, you’d never know he has anything wrong with him at all.

They both need semi-annual vet visits and extra blood work because they are seniors and Jazzy, especially, needs to be monitored for organ functionality. We also feed him a diet low in phosphorus to help keep his kidney disease under control.

Jaime, a contributor to this section and a King Street Cats volunteer, recently shared the most beautiful story of human kindness and animal resilience with me. She and her husband recently became the proud parents of a little tripod kitten they named OJ (for orange joker because his mouth looks like “The Joker”).  Jaime’s husband, John, feeds a small colony of feral cats in the District and on a frigid night in January, noticed OJ was separated from the other kittens and hanging by one front paw onto a parking grate.  He managed to free OJ and rushed him to the VCA Alexandria Emergency Vet on Duke Street.  The entire time John was driving the car he wasn’t sure if OJ was dead or alive.

Soon after, they brought OJ home, less one left leg and several inches of his tail. When they amputate a cat’s leg, unlike with dogs, they remove the entire leg, including the shoulder.  He was diagnosed with hypothermia and frostbite and they weren’t even sure he’d survive.  The vets (it took a village) also thought that, due to the size of one of his pupils, he could have brain damage.

After a couple of weeks of confinement, antibiotics and painkillers, he was let out into the general population with their other pets.  Then, one day, almost overnight, he was running, leaping, climbing on top of the five-foot plus tall cat condo and terrifying Jaime and John.  He doesn’t seem to know he has fewer legs than he is supposed to. He climbs with one front leg, scratches the scratching post, with one leg – there’s really nothing he can’t do. If you had asked Jaime and John if they knew how to care for a tripod cat, they would have said no, but everyday they feel more and more comfortable with it as it becomes the new norm for their family.

If you are interested in adopting a pet with special needs, what do you need to do first? Though the actions and type of care will vary depending on the specific need, the following steps apply to all situations and should be taken before adopting a pet with special needs:

  1. 1. Research the potential pet’s condition and consult with a licensed veterinarian regarding any extra care steps that need to be taken. Don’t be shy – ask about how frequently you should bring your new furry friend in for a check-up, estimated costs, whether a special diet is needed, if changes to your home environment are recommended, and freely discuss any reservations you have.
  2. 2. Do some soul searching and discuss with anyone living with you – are you all ready and able to commit to a routine that could be challenging when schedules change or you’re going out of town? Can you handle this for the entire life of the pet?
  3. 3. Examine your financial situation to ensure you’ll have enough to provide for any specific needs. Your discussion with the vet should shed some light on estimated costs.

If you’re planning to adopt, I hope reading this has encouraged you to give a pet with special needs a chance.  No matter what their physical or mental challenges are, their most pressing special need is your love.

I hope you come away from reading this with an increased understanding of what it feels like to care for a pet with special needs and an enhanced appreciation for the remarkable resilience of our furry friends.

Charissa Pallas volunteers as an adoption counselor for King Street Cats. She lives in Alexandria and is not the least bit worried about cats outnumbering the humans living in her home.

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