The short answer to that question is “No, not really.”
Special-needs pets. The term itself sounds foreboding in a politically correct sort of way, doesn’t it? The phrase has become a name tag for thousands of pets awaiting adoption in shelters and rescues across the country and indeed the world. The term is also broad and covers a lot of ground, much like we have many similar phrases for similarly-problematic human beings. We do need those phrases though, don’t we? In the cases of special pets, they can be a great way to drop a barrier between a pet and a prospective forever family.
Special-needs pets can fit into a large range of situations. They can be formerly abused animals, neglected animals, physically-challenged animals, deaf and/or blind animals, and even simply older or elderly pets. They are all pets that either haven’t been given much of a chance by humans, or have been hurt by humans, or have been simply abandoned by their former masters, either through malice or economic need.
Long before the phrase became a catchword, back when I first got out on my own, I adopted an older cat from the local Humane Society in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I could have gotten a kitten; believe me, there were plenty of them there. But instead I decided to opt for a little less active cat that I saw there; I just wanted the cat for companionship, as I have almost always had pets around the house. I also knew that there were loads of families who would want to adopt kittens, but not that many who want a "pre-owned" pet, if you know what I mean. Her name was already Lu, so I kept it that, and she came home with me. As you can see in the photo below, she was a big fluffy girl, very lovable and was wont to tell me she wanted attention by plopping herself on top of whatever book I might happen to be reading. She and I moved to Pennsylvania, but unfortunately I had to have her put down back in 1999, due to kidney failure. It was the first time I had to face that bleak prospect, and it isn’t one that I wanted to go through again. My little girl had been with me for eight years, and I suspect she had been at least six to nine years old to begin with, so at least she had a relatively long, pain-free life.
After moving to Pennsylvania, my wife Mona and I decided to adopt a dog. We had two cats at the time, Lu and Mona’s pet Whobee. Into that mix came Buster, a Jack Russell terrier mutt who we were told was only a year old, but later discovered was a few years older. Buster was definitely a “special-needs” animal. He had been abused by former owners, who burnt him with cigarettes, and he spent a large period of time outside in the wild and the elements. He wasn’t a very well-adjusted dog at the shelter, getting into fights and all sorts of things. But there was something about him that really clicked with me; Mona was a little more reticent, but she eventually came to love him as much as I did.
Buster had a habit of hoarding food. He would collect as much of it as he could when offered, and then run off to some little hidey-hole and stash it for later. He once put two dog biscuits in his mouth the long way, and nonchalantly pranced off to hide them. I am so glad he usually only did this with dry dog biscuits, because I’m betting I still haven’t found all his little doggie caches around the house. One time outside on the patio, we tossed him an ice cube, which he quickly crunched down. The next one we threw him, he took into the backyard and buried it for later. I was quite literally rolling on the ground laughing when I saw him do that. He was such a sweet little hound.
Buster’s main problem was his excitability. I believe that from living in the outdoors for so long, he developed an intense fear of thunderstorms, and would howl and fret and pace frantically throughout the house. We gradually learned to stay calm with him, and even got some herbal medication to calm him from the local naturopath for when he was getting too rowdy. You could see in Buster’s eyes that he was sorry for what he was doing, but he didn’t have any control. We’d just give him his meds, talk to him calmly and hug him as much as we could to get him back to normal. Buster has been gone for a few years now, having died at home from an undiagnosed illness (we believe it was kidney failure, and it struck very quickly). He wHe
As you might notice, Buster got along with everybody.
The newest member of the family is the only one who shows any outwards signs of being a special-needs animal. But you probably wouldn’t even notice at first. Ruby Xev is a black kitten we adopted from the Ruth Steinert Memorial SPCA in Pine Grove, Pennsylania. We had gone down there one Saturday to donate some pet food, and decided to wander around the pens, looking at the cats and kittens, with no intention of adopting any. Well, both me and my wife couldn’t get little Ruby out of our heads afterwards. Ruby’s only problem was that she had a major eye infection and was blind (initially, we thought she had some sight remaining in her eyes, but I don’t believe that was the case). We went out and got all the accoutrements that a young kitten requires, including a cage to keep her in when we were gone. Then, about two weeks before we were planning to adopt her, we got a heart-rending email from the shelter saying that one of Ruby’s eyes had ruptured and she was heading to Allentown for emergency surgery. She came through that fairly well, but ended up with a case of pneumonia. Luckily, she responded well to treatment, and we ended up taking her home about a week sooner than we normally would have, just so she wouldn’t have to stay in the shelter and mix with all the normal contaminants in the air from the other cats and kittens.
Mona about to put Ruby Xev in the carrier for her ride to her forever home.
Ruby Xev has been a literal eye-opener. Three quarters of the time, it is so very hard to believe that there’s anything at all wrong with this little fireball of fur. She has a better memory than I have, remembering the layout of the rooms, heights of chairs she likes to climb up and jump down from, and where the litter boxes are. She still occasionally runs into things, usually if she's chasing one of the other cats. It took maybe a week, but she soon came running with all the other cats at the first release of air from a cat food can by the opener. There are times when I think she’s got something more than sight; you can wave your fingers at her from a yard away, and she’ll act like she’s noticing them and often leap and actually grab them. Ruby’s a little more physical in her dealings with other creatures, I assume because she’s making up for the missing sense. Her little Wolverine-claws are always out, but almost always to swipe playfully, not painfully. She’s one of the more amazing individuals it has been my luck to know.
Certainly there are special-needs animals that need more personal care than the three that we’ve adopted. Many dogs and cats require special trolleys and carriers with wheels so they can move around when their spines and legs don’t work properly. Many don’t adapt nearly as well as Ruby did to blindness or deafness. They take a little more care and understanding than your average pet, at least at the beginning. Once you both get into sync with each other, you won’t even notice a problem. There are millions of pets out there in the world who are looking for families to stay with. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a regular pet, but anyone can do that. If you have just a little more time and love to give someone, why not adopt a special needs pet? The end result is the same: You help a creature in need, and in return you get a new member of your family who will love you as much as you love them.
A "too-much" loveseat soon to become a "one-cat" loveseat, after a cloud of fur and claws.
Some excellent special-needs animal pages on Facebook:
I’d also like to give a shout out to the Ruth Steinert Memorial SPCA. They do FANTASTIC work and deserve all the support you local folks in Schuylkill County can give them. You can find them at their Facebook page and at their regular website. Please stop by and give them a “like” if you get a chance.