When I adopted my dog, Oliver, as a puppy, it wasn’t hard to imagine what he’d be like as an old man — because he basically started out as one. From the moment he was put in my arms at 6 weeks old, it was obvious he had the slow pace, attitude and soul of a very old, unapologetically stubborn geezer.
Even his bark was old. At 6 weeks, he fit almost entirely in the palm of my hand and yet, had the gruff, raspy bellow of a 97-year-old coal miner living on a wholesome diet of whiskey and Marlboro Reds.
I was prepared for “old man energy.”
I wasn’t prepared to have a handicapped dog. So when Ollie and Maddie came to live with me and Andrew last year, we had a lot to learn about caring for a special needs pet, and we had to learn it fast.
Throughout the years, I’ve shared custody of Oliver and Madeline with my former partner (and still good friend), Jason, who now lives in Seattle. He would keep them for one or two years, and then I’d take them. We’ve done this back and forth several times over their lifetime, and it’s been a pretty awesome system. We agreed when I took them back this last time that it would be the final trip because of their age.
Maddie came back with a lot more gray hair and far fewer teeth, but was otherwise the same neurotic mess she’s always been.
Ollie, on the other hand, had lost almost all his hearing and eyesight. So while personality-wise, he was completely the same, we had to adapt to a totally different lifestyle with a pet who had far more special needs than we were used to.
Life with a disabled pet can be challenging. The responsibilities of frequent vet visits, daily medications and special nutrition can be demanding even for the most dedicated and attentive pet parent.
Surprisingly though, taking on such a responsibility brought with it a lot more joy and entertainment than I expected. I just had to figure out how to manage new rhythms and routines with a dog that needed a little extra help getting from “Point A” to “Point B” without running into a wall or down a flight of stairs.
Piece of cake, right?
Well, yes … if that cake happened to be dropped from a third-story window and landed catastrophically on top of a particularly angry-for-no-good-reason cactus wearing a “I hate cake” T-shirt.
But we weren’t alone in this new adventure, thankfully.
Here’s a little interesting fact about people who work in animal welfare: A surprisingly high proportion of us have special needs pets (what can I say, we just have a soft spot for the fixer uppers). This was great news for me when it came time to welcome Ollie and Maddie back into our home last year because I had an army of people at my fingertips just bursting with helpful advice.
Here is a little about what they taught me along the way:
Focus on what they can do rather than dwell on what they cannot.
From paralysis to loss of vision to epilepsy, your pet may have been born differently-abled, or it may have come into its struggle later in life. Whether the disability is related to old age, genetics, injury or disease doesn’t really matter. What matters is what your pet can still do, what senses they still have and the activities still bring them joy — and focusing on creating more opportunities for enrichment based on their strengths.
If your dog is blind, for example, he likely depends more heavily on his senses of smell and hearing to navigate the world in the dark. So one way to keep them active and engaged is to make feeding time into a game of hide and seek.
I always feed Maddie in the same place. It’s a routine she relishes, so I’m not messing with it. In Ollie’s case though, I’ll put his food down in a different place every time that is near enough for him to smell, but not so close that he doesn’t have to search for it. It keeps him moving around and he absolutely loves the hunt.
Timing is everything – and some times take longer than others.
Inevitably, a special needs pet will require more of your time than an able-bodied one. Everyday tasks, such as feedings, walks and bathroom breaks, will all take more planning and preparation, as will veterinary visits and procedures.
But the good news here is that in a fast paced world where you are running at full speed most of the time, enjoying the routines of your special needs pet can be a much needed trigger to slow down to a more leisurely pace and see the world from a more present view.
In my house, dog walks used to be a more athletic experience. These days though, it’s more like a slow motion meditation with frequent stops. And it’s kind of awesome.
Routine, Routine, Routine.
Routine is important for any able-bodied pet but is particularly important for pets with special needs. An established schedule for bathroom breaks, exercise, feeding and medication helps your pet to feel safe and mitigates stress from unexpected and unknown stimulus.
A pet that gets around sticks around.
Pets who have been in accidents or who are suffering from chronic illnesses such as arthritis may need help getting around, and for their own health and well-being, it’s important that they continue to get exercise. A few minor home modifications can ensure your pet is able to meet its most basic needs and keep its independence as long as possible.
Nonslip flooring is a must for pets with mobility issues. In areas of the home with hardwood, tile, and linoleum flooring, rugs provide a soft, skid-free surface for your pet. You can also place runners on commonly-traveled paths to help pets move from room to room. #designchallenge!
Even though I was woefully unprepared for a special needs pet in the beginning, I have grown to see the wonderful blessing it has been in our lives. It’s kind of hard to sulk or feel sorry for myself after a bad day when I look down to see the obvious joy emanating from Ollie as he wags his tail like a dog having the best day ever even though he can’t see or hear the world he’s living in. He finds joy and adventure in every other one of his heightened senses as a result.
He’s happy just because. So it leaves me wondering, is it possible to find happiness in any circumstances? Ollie seems to think so. I think he’s onto something.