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Who Saved Who? The Joy of Owning a Special Needs Pet

From pets with physical disabilities to those with anxiety, we're exploring the unique joys and challenges special needs pets bring to our lives—they just need you to open your heart and your home.
By Linley Sanders
January 22, 2021

From a backyard outside of Philadelphia, a 12-week-old rough collie puppy named River is thrilled to have discovered a rubber dog toy. River's tri-color tan coat bounces as he trots around the yard with the prize, his white paws pattering across dirt while his black-tipped ears stick straight up in the air. 

His foster mom, Carla Boyd, watches nearby as River convinces her fully grown Akita to chase him. Like most dogs, River loves playfully wrestling other pups and chewing on toys. But he's still learning the basics of training—for instance, he still yips audibly when put in his crate to communicate his desire to get out and go for a walk. Like most trainers, Boyd will give River a reward as he learns his puppy manners, such as learning to sit when told or not whining from his crate. 

But unlike most pet owners, Boyd will also reward River for other seemingly basic behaviors, such as orienting himself toward her voice when she says his name. This is important because River is blind in both eyes—and while he cannot see, he is expected to operate in the world like every other dog. Despite his blindness, River will learn to identify where sounds are coming from and "look" toward his owner for commands. Many people may never realize he cannot see them.

River the blind collie sits outside in leaves
Blind collie with sweater plays with snow
Left: River, a collie puppy, can't see the colors of the leaves he's playing in because he is blind in both eyes, but he doesn't let that stop him from trotting around the yard. | Credit: Courtesy of Carla Boyd
Right: In his striped sweater, River is ready to play in the fresh snow. The collie pup's blindness doesn't stop him from running around and enjoying all kinds of weather. | Credit: Courtesy of Carla Boyd

"If I sent you a video of River, you would ask, 'Where is the blind puppy?' because he runs around all over the place," says Boyd, a 10-year foster parent for Blind Dog Rescue Alliance. "They are a dog first, even if they have a special need. Even with disabilities or problems, they can still live a good, quality life." 

The idea of a "special needs pet" can encompass many different conditions—but cats and dogs who require additional care can still experience full, happy lives with a little accommodation and patience. A special needs pet might come to your household with a physical ailment, such as blindness or a missing limb. Others can develop a medical condition after they are adopted, such as cancer or an immunodeficiency. No matter the circumstances, there are resources and a community of love surrounding these animals.

Advocating for a Special Needs Pet

Christina Lee, the founder of Deaf Dogs Rock in Salem, Va., was introduced to the world of non-hearing dogs after a friend who worked at a local animal shelter asked her if she would consider adopting a deaf boxer puppy named Nitro. Despite some nerves because of the lack of information surrounding deaf dogs, Lee agreed. 

"One of the things that surprised me about Nitro was how detached he was. That worried me at first," Lee says. "I was also worried I knew absolutely nothing about raising a deaf puppy and there was not a lot of information out there to help me."

Vertical photo of Nitro the boxer with family
Nitro, a boxer, was the first deaf dog that Christina Lee and her husband, Chris, adopted. His arrival ultimately inspired the Lees to start the organization Deaf Dogs Rock.
| Credit: Kenn Bell

Lee and her husband, Chris, took Nitro to group training classes that focus on positive reinforcement—the same style of training that Boyd used to teach River to orient himself toward her voice. Deaf and blind dogs benefit from socialization with other animals, which can make group training classes a great fit. While at home, both Boyd and Lee endorse clicker training or marker training.

"The biggest misconception is that a new deaf dog family will need a special deaf dog trainer, and they don't," Lee says. "The training is the same for training a hearing dog … the only difference in training is that the handler will use sign cues instead of verbal cues, and they will use a visual marker instead of the sound of a clicker to mark the exact second the dog makes the right decision directly followed up with a high-value treat."

Deaf Dogs Rock founders' dogs
Christina and Chris Lee, founders of Deaf Dogs Rock, currently own six dogs—four are deaf and two are hearing. Their current brood includes Tallulah, Bud, Bowie, Axl Blu, Ringo Star, and Marshall Tucker.
| Credit: Courtesy of Christina Lee

Nine months after adopting Nitro, Lee and Chris created Deaf Dogs Rock to serve as a resource for people to learn how to train hearing-impared dogs and adopt them. Lee receives emails every day from people asking her to help rehome their deaf dogs—many because they never trained their dog and ended up with a pet who has bad manners, while others are going through financial hardships and do not have the money to care for a deaf dog.

"I think over the years what I have gained more than anything else is empathy," Lee says. "I used to get upset when I first would get these emails because I was coming from my personal perspective of taking care of my deaf dogs, but I learned it was unfair to judge anyone asking for help. I try very hard to recognize and understand each individual circumstance and try to place myself in their shoes."

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While helping deaf dogs get adopted, Lee also teaches new owners the best ways to advocate for their special needs pets. She recommends that owners work with veterinarians who are certified with American Animal Hospital Association and Fear Free Pets, a certification that indicates the veterinarian is trained in handling fearful, anxious, or stressed-out pets.  

"If a person makes a commitment to adopt a deaf dog, it is their responsibility to be their deaf dog's advocate in every circumstance," Lee says. "We ask people to go to their veterinarian's website, check out their policies, check out their certifications, and then when the person goes to make a vet appointment for their deaf dog, speak up and ask questions."

‘You’ve Used a Lot of Your Nine Lives To Get To Me’

Alana Miller, the owner of Blind Cat Rescue and Sanctuary in St. Pauls, N.C., adopted her first blind cat after someone brought a sick kitten into the animal shelter where she volunteered alongside her daughter. The man threatened to leave the kitten in the parking lot if the facility would not take him. Surprising even herself, Miller offered to adopt the 6-week-old, black-and-white kitten and named him Louie.

"Louie showed me that a blind cat has no idea they are blind. They are just cats," Miller says. "They snuggle and cuddle together, and they fight with each other and they chase toys and balls and go crazy over catnip. The perception that a blind cat just sits and does nothing is so wrong." 

Miller and her daughter began adopting more blind cats as they realized many shelters in North Carolina would euthanize animals who were injured or sick. Eventually, they created the sanctuary to provide a permanent home for more cats who were seen as unadoptable. Miller's nonprofit sanctuary currently cares for more than 80 cats, who snuggle and play across the facility's two buildings.

While running the rescue, Miller works to educate people about the importance of spaying and neutering outdoor cats and maintaining veterinary care to prevent more cats from going blind. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, the most frequently diagnosed feline eye disorder, conjunctivitis, can be cured if treated promptly. In addition to preventative work, Miller teaches people that blind cats—or those diagnosed with leukemia or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus—can still have a good quality of life. 

"Once they come here, they get forever. Everybody deserves forever somewhere, and once these cats have come to me, they have exhausted all other options," Miller says. "With some of the cats it's like, 'You've used a lot of your nine lives to get to me.'"

‘It’s Not As Crazy As It Might Seem’

When Krystin Cardozo spotted a 5-year-old stray dog available for adoption online, she was struck by how much he looked like her Rhodesian ridgeback, Cutch. While this adoptable dog was smaller than Cutch, another key difference between the two was that the stray was missing his right front leg. 

Cardozo, an animal ambassador keeper for the Denver Zoo, was immediately taken by the dog and his story, but she worried a special needs pet would translate to expensive veterinary bills. Cardozo did research through her veterinary community, and while the cost of a special needs pet can vary based on the animal's needs, she was assured that this tripod dog—whom she adopted and aptly named Buckshot—would essentially be the same as any other pup.

three-legged dog sitting in front of pond
three-legged dog sitting in kitchen
Left: Buckshot's leg was amputated after he was shot and the injury got infected. He struggled with some phantom limb pain at first but is now happy, healthy, and thriving. | Credit: Courtesy of Krystin Cardozo
Right: It might seem scary to adopt a tripod dog at first, but Buckshot's owner, Krystin Cardozo, says: "There's a few preventative things to do for your special needs dog, but definitely give these dogs a chance because it's not as crazy as it might seem. They are really pretty normal." | Credit: Courtesy of Krystin Cardozo

"I feel like it's not as big a deal as it may seem," Cardozo says. "Going in for me, I was really nervous. There's a few preventative things to do for your special needs dog, but definitely give these dogs a chance because it's not as crazy as it might seem. They are really pretty normal."

Buckshot's leg was amputated after he was shot and the injury got infected, but that surgery happened before Cardozo took him home. He struggled with phantom limb pain initially, but since then, he has not required more significant care than regular veterinary appointments and dog joint supplements

Preparing Financially, Emotionally for a Special Needs Pet

The cost of long-term care can vary based on the special need a dog experiences. Some tripod owners will use no-slip booties to prevent their dog from losing balance on hardwood floors or icy surfaces, while others will take their dogs to an acupuncturist or physical therapist to make sure their bodies maintain alignment. These variations in special needs dog care are why it's important to be financially prepared to provide a pet with optimal care.  

Leslie Stewart—who holds a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Practice, specializes in animal-assisted therapy at Idaho State University, and is a member of the Daily Paws Advisory Board—recommends potential owners of special needs pets look at their household budget and determine where pet care fits into their finances. Some pets develop special needs after they are already adopted, and prospective pet parents may want to consider having an emergency fund or pet insurance in place for any animal's care. For those who experience financial hardship, there are organizations that help fund cancer treatments and other chronic conditions.

On top of financial readiness, Stewart advises people to prepare themselves for the emotional labor of caring for a special needs pet. Some new owners may even benefit from seeking a professional counselor to talk about the difficulties that can arise. That challenging but rewarding transition is something Stewart personally understands—at 19 years old, she adopted a German shepherd with behavioral special needs.

"He was just different," Stewart says. "But our bond got to be so strong, and I am a better person because of the patience I learned. I'm a better partner and friend because of our relationship. There are a lot of learning opportunities there in caring for a special needs pet."

Cardozo says that she lucked out adopting Buckshot, and she encourages potential owners to "go for it" if they are emotionally and financially ready to help a special needs animal live their best life. 

"It makes me feel good to have a dog who is different that is thriving," Cardozo says. "It makes you feel like you've done something pretty good. Rescuing a dog is already great, but to have a special needs dog is pretty cool."