As veterinary medicine advances, veterinarians are able to help an increasing number of animals with serious problems, and these animals are living longer than ever before. The number of animals with disabilities, chronic diseases, and other conditions that require special care is constantly rising, and these animals are beginning to find a special place in pet owners’ hearts. "Animals are amazing in their ability to recover and adapt to life with a disability," says Dr. Robin Downing, an AAHA veterinarian in Windsor, Colorado. "Often it’s much harder for us as people to get over our prejudices about special needs pets than it is for the animals to get over their disabilities."
In addition to practicing veterinary medicine, Dr. Downing travels around North America to discuss pets with special needs and how pet owners and veterinarians can help them live happy, comfortable lives. As Dr. Downing teaches her audience, disabilities no longer have to mean euthanasia for animals. Most pets with special needs can live very well with the help of their owners and some changes to their environments. As people learn how to care for their disabled pets and see everything that pets with disabilities can accomplish, they can begin to realize that the most unusual part of these animals is not their limitations, but rather their abilities.
Less obvious needs
Some of the most common problems animals live with are not immediately visible. Conditions like diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, seizures, cancer, and cognitive or developmental problems can impact the quality of an animal’s life, though they are not commonly recognized as disabilities. All of these conditions can be managed however, by loving pet owners working together with veterinarians. Kidney failure, for example, can be life threatening if not treated, but it can be managed quite well with a prescription diet and drinking plenty of water. Owners can compensate for their pets’ lower kidney function by making sure they eat less protein. Heart disease can be managed with medication to equalize the animal’s fluid balance and proper, carefully monitored exercise. Diabetes can be controlled through diet, exercise, weight control, and blood sugar monitoring. Seizures can often be reduced with prescription medication. Animals with any of these conditions can often live very well, when their human families and veterinarians work together to modify the pets’ lifestyle, environment, diet, medication, or a combination of the four.
Many animals with mental retardation or cognitive function problems can do quite well with a little extra attention from owners, though results can vary widely depending on the pet’s condition. Dr. Downing’s cat Kramer was born with cerebellar hypoplasia--part of his brain did not fully develop. He can think and reason as well as any other cat, but he has problems coordinating the movement of his legs, and he often stumbles and falls. When he does, he simply picks himself up again. "He was born this way," explains Dr. Downing, "and he’s never known any other kind of life. He doesn’t know he’s different from any other cat." Kramer mostly lives his life as a normal cat, but he does require some protection from staircases and other precarious places where his falls could be dangerous.
Osteoarthritis is one of the most common pet ailments, affecting four to five million dogs (the number of cats with arthritis is unknown). To pet owners, it can seem debilitating, as it can cause dogs pain and keep them depressed and inactive. Arthritis does not have to mean a dog has to live in pain, however. It is a good example of a condition where a few small adaptations from owners can allow pets with special needs to live full lives. Family members can help protect arthritic dogs from injury by providing ramps for the pets to get in and out of cars and on and off furniture. Owners can carry small dogs in their arms or in backpacks when going on long walks. Mild exercise can keep animals’ joints loose, though owners should be careful not to overexert their dogs. A good diet and weight maintenance will help arthritic dogs as well; obesity puts extra strain on their joints. Finally, nutritional supplements and medication can keep dogs’ joints in shape and control pain. None of these lifestyle modifications are very serious or difficult, and they can help a dog with arthritis live a relatively active life.
Special sense pets
Pets that lose their sight or hearing can adapt much more easily than people, but they need to live in an environment that has been carefully modified. Blind animals, for example, need to be protected against hazards they cannot see. Owners should put child gates at both ends of the stairs, in case the pet becomes disoriented and walks in the wrong direction. Blind animals should only negotiate the steps when supervised. Blind pets should only be outside when supervised as well, because they can become frightened or disoriented, and they can wander off if a gate blows open. Also, owners should also try not to move their furniture very often, so their pets can know where objects are as they move around the house. With the help of these safety measures, pets can adapt remarkably well to blindness. Cats and dogs can learn to navigate through familiar environments by smell and by memory. Sometimes animals’ behavior will change so little when they go blind that their human families will not even realize it, particularly if the blindness occurs gradually. Blind animals can even learn to take walks in unfamiliar areas. Owners should walk them with a body harness, instead of a collar, because it provides more body contact and a sense of being securely connected. It may take some time for a blind animal to feel safe walking in strange places, but most will learn with time. "Once blind animals learn to trust their owners," says Dr. Downing, "they’ll follow them anywhere."
The primary challenge with deaf dogs is that their owners cannot guide or signal to them verbally. Deaf dogs need to be supervised and kept on a leash whenever they leave the house, as they cannot be called back and they cannot hear traffic or other approaching dangers. Deaf animals can learn to follow commands, however. They can be trained using a combination of eye contact, facial expressions, touch, and hand signals. Some deaf dogs can even learn to understand elements of American Sign Language. Owners can also communicate with deaf dogs through touch and vibration. Pet owners use a lot of creative methods to call their deaf dogs, including remote control vibrating collars, stomping on the floor indoors to cause vibrations, and flashing a flashlight or the reflection from a hand mirror.
Dr. Downing tells the story of Shadow, a German shepherd born deaf and without eyes. Even without sight and hearing, he communicates well with his human family. He understands the commands "down, sit, and stay," which his owners give to him through touch. He is a sweet, good-natured dog, gets along well with the new baby in the family, and is, in Dr. Downing’s words, "very, very happy." He even runs around with excitement when it is time to go for a walk—which his owners signal by letting him smell his leash and halter. He tears around and around in a tight, two-foot circle, having learned not to run into the furniture.
One of the most visible pet disabilities is a missing limb. However much it stands out to humans, though, animals hardly seem to notice the loss of a leg. Animal amputees may need a little time to adjust and may have some initial balance problems: cats may have some trouble balancing in the litter box, for example. They also lose their ability to defend themselves: outside animals should move inside to live a more protected lifestyle than they did when they had all four legs. With time however, animals can adjust amazingly well to the loss of a limb. They can often move almost as well as they ever did. Dr. Downing’s three-legged cat "jumps up everywhere the four-legged ones jump and has no trouble keeping up with them." In fact, the best herding dog Dr. Downing has ever seen is a three-legged border collie. Dr. Downing watched this dog, along with mounted cowboys, herd 800 cows and calves down out of the mountains in Wyoming.
Paralysis can be one of the most challenging, and widely varied, pet disabilities for owners to cope with. Modifying the environment is relatively simple: stairs should be barred with child gates, and animals should be confined to an area in the house where nothing on the ground (such as children’s toys or rough concrete or stone) can injure them. If pets are dragging their rear legs behind them, owners may want to cover the rear legs with bandages or fabric to prevent damage to the skin. There are also wheelchairs available for dogs that can help them be remarkably mobile. The dogs pull themselves forward with their front legs while the chair supports the back half of their body. The chairs are lightweight and have large, thick wheels. They can move across bumpy terrain and even through shallow water without slowing down.
Even with these adaptations, however, animals’ ability to adjust to paralysis depends on their size, age, personality, and their human family’s ability to cope with the physical demands of their care. Small animals that are paralyzed are generally easier to care for. Owners can carry them easily or put them in backpacks to be carried long distances. It is also simpler to control their bodily functions. Animals with completely severed spinal cords will not have bladder or bowel movements unless their bladder and bowels become overly filled. Veterinarians can show pet owners how to express--or squeeze--the bladder and stimulate the colon to empty them regularly. This is done by pressing and massaging the pet’s abdomen, and it is not terribly difficult in cats and small dogs. Caring for large dogs--over 35 pounds--becomes more challenging. It can be a "delicate dance," says Dr. Downing, to lift and carry big dogs and to hold them correctly while expressing their bladder and colon. The process requires cooperation from the dog and strength and patience from the human family. It is not impossible, though: Dr. Downing has seen paralyzed dogs weighing upwards of 90 pounds do very well, when they have human families that are physically able to lift and carry them.
Dr. Downing travels all around North America with her feisty paralyzed pug mix Frankie, whom she describes as "a potent little illustration of an adapted lifestyle." He has his own wheelchair, and he moves around quite well. When he’s not rolling on his own, Dr. Downing can carry him comfortably. She can also manage his bodily functions conveniently. She’s trained him to balance his front paws on a toilet seat while she expresses his bladder and bowels into the toilet bowl, making him easier to travel with than most fully-abled dogs. He attends Dr. Downing’s presentations about special needs pets and meets her audiences, showing them just how lively pets with disabilities can be. He is a joyful and friendly ambassador for animals with special needs, not to mention as fearless, stubborn, and regal as a Doberman Pinscher. "Not only does he not know that he’s disabled," says Dr. Downing, "he doesn’t seem to be aware that he only weighs nine pounds."
Duke and Misty
These two German shepherd mixes are perhaps the best example of how well special needs pets can live with a little help from their human friends. Joyce Darrell, the founder of the online Pets With Disabilities support group, began her work with disabled pets when her puppy Duke broke his spine and became paralyzed in his rear legs. Six months later, Darrell heard of another paralyzed dog that had been in a shelter for five years. She decided to adopt Misty as well, and she has "never regretted the decision for a minute." Though neither dog had ever been in a wheelchair, both adjusted within a matter of weeks. The dogs lead extremely active lives: they camp, travel, and go nearly everywhere with Darrell and her husband. Both dogs act as volunteers for Maryland’s Pets on Wheels program, traveling around the state to schools, nursing homes, and other groups. They love to chase tennis balls, which the much bigger Duke usually catches first and holds just out of Misty’s reach while she hops on her front legs. Duke goes jogging with Darrell several times a week, and sometimes he runs faster than she can keep up with. The dogs can stay in their wheelchairs for several hours before they get tired; they can move around at home without the chairs by pulling themselves with their front legs. At home, they stay within a safe area walled off with child safety gates, and they keep each other company. "They’re inseparable," explains Darrell. "They’re soul mates."
Duke and Misty attract a lot of attention in public, and are constantly making new friends. A lot of strangers come up to Darrell and her husband to ask questions about the dogs, and children from the area "hitch rides" with Duke when Rollerblading. They hold on to the back of his wheelchair and he pulls them around the neighborhood. They even get along well with able-bodied dogs, once the other dogs get used to the rather alarming wheelchairs. All this gregarious activity has its problems: the dogs have run over a lot of feet, gotten their wheels caught on mailboxes and fence posts, lost their balance, and knocked each other over countless times. "You have to keep a close eye on them when they’re in the chairs," Darrell explains. She’s also had to maintain her sense of humor in some uncomfortable moments. When the pair were invited to appear on the Later Today show, Duke had a bowel movement on the set just before taping. The Darrells have learned to keep cleaning supplies on hand at all times, however, and had everything sparkling clean by the time taping began.
There are unforgettable moments as well. When Darrell and the dogs were visiting a nursing home for Pets on Wheels, one resident in a wheelchair took to the Duke and Misty immediately. She petted them and talked with Darrell about their handicaps. When Darrell and the dogs left to visit other residents, the woman wheeled herself after them and followed them around the building, chatting the entire time. Later, the activities director told Darrell that this woman had not spoken in months and had never wheeled herself outside of her room before. This, says Darrell, is "the power of disabled pets."
Clearly, people can learn to have wonderful, rewarding lives with their disabled pets. To do so, however, pet owners will need help to fill the needs of their furry friends. If you are considering taking on a special needs pet, it is important that you consult your veterinarian. Every family and every pet is different, and veterinarians can discuss very specifically what a pet needs to adapt to life with different physical abilities. Not every disabled pet will be able to live in every home. Dr. Downing points out, for example, that a 70-year-old woman living alone with a paralyzed 80-pound collie may not be physically able to care for it. Your veterinarian will help you make the best decision for you and the pet you love.
Caring for disabled pets can be a challenging part of pet owners’ lives, but taking the time to help animals in need can bring wonderful results. For Dr. Downing, the truest sign of the rewards of special needs pets was when a visitor came to her home and met her 12 cats and 5 dogs, all sweet, friendly, and gentle animals. After spending some time getting to know them, he told Dr. Downing he knew her secret. He looked over her menagerie--the cat missing a leg, the cat missing an eye, the Great Dane with cancer, the pug in the wheelchair--and smiled. "I know what you did," he said. "You kept all the best ones for yourself."