What You Need to Know Before Adopting a Special Needs Pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

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  • If you’re considering adopting a special needs dog or cat, there’s lots to think about
  • Adopting a pet with a disability or disorder can be tremendously gratifying for owners who know what to expect and have the resources necessary to meet the challenge
  • It’s important to ask lots of questions of shelter or rescue staff; it’s equally important to do your own research on how best to care for an animal with your prospective pet’s special needs
  • Once you bring your special needs dog or cat home, general guidelines to follow include creating a safe environment, providing constant supervision initially, and building a consistent daily routine your pet can depend on

Thankfully, more and more pet parents these days are opening their hearts and homes to dogs and cats with special needs. These are typically animals with unique health (or less often, behavioral) challenges who require a special human able to provide the extra attention, care, therapy and customized training they need, now and for the future. Pets with special needs include:

  • Deaf and blind dogs and cats, who require owners who are knowledgeable of or can learn specific training methods
  • Amputees, who are predisposed to arthritis and obesity, and often require customized exercises or physical therapy
  • Pets with chronic diseases, whose humans must learn all the peculiarities of caring for their needs

If you’re considering adopting a special needs pet, know that it can be a tremendously gratifying experience. 

“Working with a pet with a disability will teach you how to be more creative and patient,” Mary Burch, a certified applied animal behaviorist and director of the AKC Canine Good Citizen Program in Tallahassee, Florida, told Pet MD. “There’s a joy that comes from knowing you saved — and gave a good life to — a pet that might not have otherwise been saved.”1

Of course, you must know what you’re getting into before you take the leap. It’s extremely important to ensure you have the necessary time and financial resources — along with heaping helpings of patience and compassion — to commit to caring for a special needs pet for the rest of his or her life.

First Find a Pet Who Fits Your Lifestyle

When it comes to adopting a special needs pet — especially a dog — experts recommend finding out about the dog first, and his special needs second. As with any pet you’re thinking of bringing home, it’s important to ensure his size, temperament, exercise needs and energy level are a good fit for your family. Challenges like deafness or blindness are actually secondary considerations in terms of finding a dog who’s a good match for your lifestyle.

“It helps to remember that he's a dog first, and blind second,” says Deb Marsh, president of Blind Dog Rescue Alliance. “Blind dogs will show you that a special need isn’t something to give in to, but to accept it and carry on with life to the fullest.”2

Questions to Ask About a Prospective Special Needs Pet

When considering an adoptable pet’s special needs, the experts who spoke with PetMD suggest asking lots of questions of the shelter or rescue staff or foster family, including the following:

  • Can the dog or cat be left at home alone for short periods during the day? If not, can she be cared for by a pet sitter? Is it possible to board her for short stays, or does she need to remain in her own home?
  • Does the pet have any current medical needs? What type of special veterinary care will she (or might she) need in the future?
  • Can the dog or cat move around the house independently? If not, is she crate-trained? What accommodations have been made for her in the past? Can she go up and down stairs?
  • What verbal cues does she currently respond to? Can they recommend a trainer who can help you learn to communicate effectively with her?
  • Does she have any behavioral issues related to her disability? If she has been previously adopted, why did that adoption fail, and what can you do to ensure she’s successful in her new life with you?

You’ll also want to thoroughly and carefully research your prospective pet’s specific issues. The more knowledgeable you are about the complexities of your dog’s or cat’s disorder or disability, the more prepared and effective you’ll be in caring for his needs.

Animals with certain physical disabilities, like amputees or pets with congenital defects, are more prone to early joint degeneration. Partnering with a rehab professional before degeneration sets in is the very best way to slow down how quickly musculoskeletal changes occur. Likewise, beginning a proactive frame support protocol that includes appropriate chrondro-protective agents upon adoption is a wise idea.

5 General Guidelines for Caring for a Special Needs Pet

1. Create a safe home environment based on your pet’s special needs — Pet-proof your home as necessary to prevent injuries and ensure there’s no way your dog or cat can escape your home or yard.

2. Make sure your pet is carefully supervised — This may or may not continue to be necessary, depending on your dog’s or cat’s special needs, after she’s settled into her new life with you.

3. Practice consistency — All animals do best with a predictable routine, and this is doubly true for pets with disabilities. Try to do all pet care-related activities at the same times each day so your furry family member knows what to expect and when. And keep his environment consistent as well, for example, don’t move your furniture around on a whim, or his food and water bowls.

4. Hire a trainer — Unless you have a background in caring for animals with special needs or you’ve had a pet in the past with the same or similar special needs, consider seeking the advice of professionals or hiring a professional trainer with relevant experience who uses positive reinforcement techniques and innovative work-arounds for your pet’s specific needs.

Be sure to interview a few different trainers before making a decision, and if that first (or any) training session leaves you or your pet feeling uneasy, follow your instincts and continue your search for the right fit.

5. Be realistic — Your pet’s special needs may be permanent and may grow progressively worse or create additional challenges over time, so it’s important to understand the commitment you’re making and the potential long-term effect on your lifestyle.

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