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A few days ago, a friend sent me a video she’d found online, that showed a very excited dog with a new wheelchair, running and nearly leaping for joy at his new mobility. Other than not having the use of his hind legs, the dog was in excellent health, and clearly had tons of love and energy to give someone. But did you know that had he been a shelter dog, waiting to be adopted, he likely would have stayed in the shelter up to four times longer than a dog with full mobility? Dogs with special needs can take much, much longer to be adopted than other dogs, a fact that both makes sense, and is pretty sad.
Look, I can’t sugar coat the truth for you here on the blog. Adopting a dog with special needs does mean you have to dedicate more work, more money, and more attention to your dog. Which is why I said it makes sense that these dogs take a bit longer to get adopted. Not only does the right person have to come along, but the shelter usually has a more vigorous vetting process to ensure that the dog will get the right care.
If videos like the one I saw tug at your heart, and you think that you might be interested in helping a sweet dog get a new lease on life, then there are some things to know before you jump right in to adopting a dog. Here are some tips and facts to keep in mind when considering a dog with special needs.
(1) Start by Talking to a Specialist
There are many different ways that a dog could have special needs. They could be paralyzed, they could be deaf, they could be blind, they could have diabetes, they may have an autoimmune disorder…the list goes on and on. There are even dogs with things we typically consider human disorders, like Down’s Syndrome. Every type of special need will require different levels of daily care, so the best way to get a good picture of what you can expect from a potential pet is to talk to a specialist.
My recommendation is to start with the foster home or kennel workers, and your vet. Ask the people who have been taking care of the dog so far what kind of care has been required of them; then talk to your vet about treatments and care regimens that they would suggest for a dog with the specific needs of the dog you are considering. You aren’t getting specifics yet, since your vet won’t have examined the dog personally; you’re just looking for an overall idea of what you may be in for. This can help you decide if you are truly ready to adopt a dog with those specific special needs.
If your vet doesn’t give you a very positive picture, don’t be afraid to go talk to a specialist at an animal hospital or a veterinary school nearby. It may be that your vet simply doesn’t have the experience with this specific special need, and doesn’t realize that there is more hope for a normal life than they knew.
(2) Start with the Right Tools
One thing that many pet adopters do that costs them more in the long run, is try to make it with makeshift or DIY gear at first. If your dog requires mobility aids or any sort of equipment to help meet their needs, you should plan to start with the good stuff. This will keep your costs down overall, and also helps to train the dog to the right gear, right away.
Some examples of equipment or gear you may need for a dog with special needs include:
This list is just a small sampling of what you may be looking into for a special needs dog. But as stated above, it’s important to just start with whatever you plan to use long term. Ultimately, this makes your dog and your wallet more comfortable.
(3) Be Honest About Your Physical Ability
When considering adopting a special needs dog, you know that you need to consider how much time and money you have to offer the dog for their care. But many people don’t realize just how physically demanding it can be to care for a special needs dog. You need to be able to comfortably lift, carry, or subdue your dog as necessary, for all sorts of situations. If the dog is very large, you need to be honest with yourself about whether you’ll be able to physically carry out the tasks.
There are tools that can help, such as the lifting harness linked above. This makes it easier to get a dog in and out of the car for going to the vet’s office, for example. But it can’t be relied on in every single situation. There will be times when you’ll need to be able to ensure that you can move your dog, or subdue your dog, without any other tools. If you aren’t sure that you can physically handle it, you may not be the best owner for a dog with specific needs.
(4) Find Out What Options You Have
There are many ways that your life will change when you have a disabled pet. But that doesn’t mean that you have to necessary live at the vet’s office, or that you have to quit your job to give them full-time care. There are options out there that can help you create a pretty normal life. For example, look for vets that do house calls in your area, to avoid having to always be in the office.
You can also look for boarding facilities and pet sitters that have experience with disabled pets in your area, so that you have help when you need it. Having a pet with special needs does mean you have to dedicate more of your time, yes; but it does not mean that your entire life is over. With a bit of searching for the options out there, you can still keep a pretty typical routine.
(5) Form a Routine
Speaking of routines, they will be very important when you have a special needs dog. In order to ensure that your dog gets all the care they need every day, it’s a good idea to list off all the tasks you need to do with your dog, and schedule them into an easily-memorized routine. This includes things like frequent bathroom breaks for dogs that don’t have bowel control, or checking your dog’s sugar if they have diabetes. Dogs with wheelchairs may need regular skin checks to ensure they aren’t being rubbed raw by the gear, and so on.
Putting all these tasks into a routine will ensure that you don’t forget anything, and will help your dog have an anxiety-free day because they’ll know what to expect. It also makes it easier to hire a pet sitter, because you’ve got a routine for them to follow already in place.
Most pet owners with special needs dogs say that if you can take care of a toddler child, you can take care of a disabled dog. They need about the same level of consistent monitoring, and often have similar needs in terms of mobility and care.
(6) Don’t Be Afraid to Try
I realize that so far, this article has seemed a bit daunting to anyone considering adopting a special needs dog. Depending on what your dog’s condition is, it may very well be an expensive process to raise them. But not all special needs dogs will cost you a ton to raise. For example, an otherwise healthy dog with a wheelchair will only need regular vet checks and a wheelchair, which can usually be bought for under $200. This isn’t a huge expense like some may be anticipating for dogs with chronic diseases, like those with autoimmune disorders. And blind or deaf dogs don’t really require much in the way of additional vet care, so long as they remain healthy otherwise.
One thing I will mention is that you do need to be experienced with training and working with dogs, in my opinion, to raise a blind or deaf dog successfully. These dogs need a bit more consistency than others, because they will only have one cue for following commands, whereas other dogs get two. You’ll want to pick your training style early and cater it around your dog’s specifically disability. Blind dogs may do well with clicker training, for example, while deaf dogs will need a series of hand motions to inform them of what command you are giving.
All this being said, don’t be afraid to try it out! These dogs need love too, and the right owner can provide them with wonderful, long, healthy lives. Just because a dog has a condition when you meet, does not mean the condition is forever – they may have something very treatable. Another thing to remember is that any dog could suddenly become disabled at any time – say, a healthy dog getting into an accident and losing the use of their back legs – so even those owners who simply can’t stomach the idea of a special needs dog aren’t really “safe”. If your healthy dog became disabled, you wouldn’t decide to toss them to the curb, would you? No, you’d continue loving them as always. Starting with a special needs dog is the same concept – it’s still a dog that can offer you tons of companionship and love.
Finally, flying right in the face of my earlier tip to create a routine, you do need to be flexible and roll with the punches as the owner of a disabled dog. You’ll be doing something that most pet owners never dream of, and that means that there aren’t a lot of tried and true methods for training or caring for your dog. What works for a healthy dog may not be possible for your dog. You may have to invent an entirely new method of training to work with your dog’s specific needs. You may need to rearrange your life a bit to allow your dog to stick close to your side more often.
However, if you are up for the challenge and are a fast thinker under pressure, you’ll likely find that this isn’t as daunting as you’re imagining. Once you know your dog, and they know you, you’ll both fall into a rhythm. You’ll know what will and won’t work for your dog, and you’ll be able to plan for life’s challenges accordingly.
It’s heartwarming to see those videos of dogs with new wheels, or with other dogs guiding them around, or living a healthy life despite obvious challenges. It’s even more heartwarming to me to think about the people behind the scenes, who just loved that dog too much to abandon them despite the challenges.
Having a disabled dog is not for everyone. If you aren’t able to really dedicate your time and attention to advocating for your dog, caring for your dog, and loving your dog, then you may want to give someone else a chance to take on this challenge.
But if you have the compassionate nature that it takes to provide a dog that others feel is hopeless, with a home and medical care, you’ll be saving a life. Keep the tips in this post in mind, and do a lot of soul searching before you adopt. Researching the dog’s needs and your own capabilities will be key to ensuring a good match before you make the commitment.