Are You Ready to Adopt a Special Needs Dog or Cat?

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PetMD Editorial
Published: December 26, 2018
Updated: December 26, 2018
Vet Reviewed by: Jennifer Coates, DVM

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By Lisa A. Beach

Cats and dogs with special needs face unique challenges to their health and well-being and need someone who can provide extra care and attention—and possibly therapy and special training—all with patience, love and compassion. Here’s what you need to know before you adopt a special needs cat or dog.

Benefits of Adopting a Dog or Cat With Special Needs  

While there can be extra work and financial commitment involved, there are many reasons why you should consider adopting a special needs dog or a special needs cat.

“Working with a pet with a disability will teach you how to be more creative and patient,” says Mary Burch, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist and director of AKC Canine Good Citizen Program in Tallahassee, Florida. “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.”

If you decide to adopt a dog or cat with special needs, knowing what to expect—and preparing your home ahead of time—can pave the way for an easier transition from shelter to home.

Questions to Ask Before Adopting Special Needs Dog or Cat

Think of the dog first and the special needs next. “First ask about the pet and its energy level, breed, and exercise requirements to make sure that type of pet will fit in their household,” says Gay Wakeland, president and cofounder of Deaf Dogs of Oregon. “Deafness is secondary when it comes to finding a good matching home for the pet.”  

Deb Marsh, president of Blind Dog Rescue Alliance in Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, agrees. “It helps to remember that he's a dog first, and blind second! 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.”

When it comes to the animal’s special needs, our experts suggest asking these questions before adopting:

  • When you’re away from home, can the pet be cared for by a dog walker or sitter? Is it best for the pet to remain in her own home, or is staying at family member’s house or in a kennel an option?
  • Does the pet have any special medical needs or take a prescription pet medication?
  • What extra veterinary bills will need to be covered, and how much will this cost?
  • Can the pet navigate around the house independently? If not, does she need to be in a room with the door closed or in a crate?
  • Do you need to walk the pet on a leash, or can she stay (supervised) in a fenced-in yard?
  • Are stairs a problem?
  • Are there certain commands the pet responds to already?
  • Is there a nearby trainer who can teach you to communicate with or manage your special needs pet?
  • Does she have any behavioral issues related to the disability (e.g., fear-biting when startled)?
  • What kind of environment did the pet’s previous home provide, and what should be changed so this adoption is successful?


Tips for Making Life Easier for Special Needs Pets

Follow these guidelines to help ease the transition of your new pet into your home.

Be Realistic

“Expect that whatever issues [that] caused the special needs may not disappear with time,” says Terri M. Bright, director of behavior services at MSPCA Angell in Boston. Understand that the animal’s disability could impact your lifestyle, such as making special arrangements if you have to travel with your pet. Even a simple walk around your neighborhood might be different, perhaps requiring a special dog harness.

Bright, a doctoral-level board-certified behavior analyst and certified applied animal behaviorist, likes the safety of a 2 Hounds Design Freedom no-pull dog harness and leash to ensure that the dog is completely secure and cannot get out of it if she becomes frightened and tries to bolt.

If your special needs dog or cat struggles with mobility issues, consider a HandicappedPets small dog wheelchair or a HandicappedPets dog support sling to give them a helping hand when needed.

Seek Advice

There’s a wealth of information available, so turn to credible sources such as rescue staff, animal trainers, veterinarians, behaviorists and online resources like Deaf Dogs. If the pet has been living in a foster home, talk with the current foster family, suggests Marsh.

“They can share what the pet likes/dislikes, how to handle certain situations and what commands/training tools work to ease him into his new surroundings.”

Get Training

Be sure to budget for any training you might need, perhaps with a certified applied animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist. “Look for training methods that rely on preventing problems and using rewards to train new behaviors,” explains Bright.

“Anything that frightens the animal should not be used, whether water spray, loud noises, electronic shock collars/mats or anything else scary.” And Burch adds, “Training is usually needed to teach the animal to navigate around the home if blind or to respond to the owner if deaf.”

  • Deaf pets: To teach a recall to a deaf dog, pair dog treats with a vibration-only collar, says Bright. “This should be used with rewards only, such as teaching that the buzzing vibration means come-and-get-a-treat!” Wakeland suggests learning some hand signs and visual cues to train your deaf dog.
  • Blind pets: Marsh finds that, for blind dogs, a dog clicker, like the Starmark pro-training dog clicker training aid, is great for training, paired with voice commands such as “sit,” “come,” “up/down” (for steps, curbs, etc.) and “stop” (for an emergency if they need to stop immediately).
  • Pets with physical disabilities: Keep your home tidy and free from clutter. Ramps, pet steps, non-slip surfaces and other accommodations may be necessary to give your pet access to all the places she needs to go.

Stay Positive

“These special dogs should be trained with positive reinforcement,” notes Burch. “For blind dogs, food and your soft voice can be reinforcers. For deaf dogs, use food and gentle touches to signal that the dog has done something correctly.”

Also, Marsh says to talk quietly to blind pets before touching them if they’re sleeping/resting so you don’t startle them. For deaf pets, you can announce your presence with a stomp on the floor.

Provide Extra Supervision

Pets with special needs shouldn’t be left to their own devices in an unfamiliar environment. This can translate into an owner who needs to be home much of the time (at least initially) and having a helper who is trained to fill in when the owner is gone. “I usually keep a new foster dog's harness and leash on for a few days so I can guide him and catch him quickly if he’s heading somewhere he shouldn't,” advises Marsh.

For example, she leads a newly arrived blind dog to his dog food and water dog bowl, to the door to go outside, and to his dog bed. But she advises not to pick the dog up and put him down because he won't know how to get there on his own. “He’ll bump into things,” she notes. “While it can be hard to watch, it's how they learn their way, kind of like using a cane.” 

Modify Your Environment to Protect Your Pet

Get down on the pet’s level to check for anything that could injure a pet, similar to baby-proofing a house. Wakeland says it’s important to have a safe place in the home where the dog cannot escape, and a fenced-in yard because a deaf dog cannot be called back if she runs off.

If you have a blind pet that will be roaming free in your yard, check for sticks and branches that could scratch or poke him. “And gate the stairs and anywhere else he can injure himself, such as a pool,” notes Marsh.

Tap into your pet’s other senses as well. If a visually impaired dog stumbles when going down the steps, help her feel the change by using a mat with a different texture at the top/bottom of the stairs.

Consider using a pet ramp for front or back steps. Use throw rugs or carpet sample squares in doorways to make it easier for your pet to find door openings. Marsh puts rubber welcome mats outside to designate the safe path from the back door to the ramp to the lawn.

Outside, place wind chimes near the back door to guide a blind dog. Inside, use different scents (such as a dab of vanilla extract) to mark areas for your pet. Burch says, “You can get a halo guide that goes around the dog’s head and prevents her from running into things.”

Halo guides, like Muffin’s Halo blind dog bumper, can help to guide your dog with a comfortable harness, cushioned wings and a ring that acts as a buffer.

Be Consistent

For any type of disability, it helps to maintain a predictable schedule. For example, a cat with a physical disability may not be able to toilet on her own, but if she knows that someone will be in around lunch time to help, her stress level will be much lower than it would be with an unpredictable schedule.

Keep the animal’s environment consistent as well. “When possible, the pet’s other senses should be considered,” Bright says. “What smells is the animal accustomed to? What foods? Types of grooming or handling? To the extent these can be kept consistent, the pet will benefit.” Always feed her in the same place and don’t move the furniture around.

If you take all of these things into account, you will be prepared and ready to welcome a special needs dog or cat into your home.