By: Cate Burnett
National Specially-abled Pets Day Is May 3rd
A specially-abled pet may have had an injury, a birth defect, or a disease that requires her to use a wheeled harness, a sling, or a stroller. These dogs or cats may be blind or deaf and may not always have the chance to get out and socialize with people other animals. Many ‘specially-able’ animals end up in shelters where they are routinely euthanized because they have not been adopted.
At VIP Pet Services, we want to celebrate and honor those pets with disabilities and give you information to help you determine if adopting a blind, deaf or paralyzed dog or cat is something that can fit into a plan for your family.
Living With a Blind Pet
Whether your pet is blind because of illness, genetics, age or trauma, blind animals with no other health issues can live long and happy lives. The sense of sight is actually number three in importance behind a dog’s sense of hearing and smell. By utilizing the blind animal’s other senses, loving pet parents can help a blind pet adapt and move easily through the home environment while interacting with the family and other.
Some tips for helping your sightless pet might include:
- Maintain a normal daily routine, allowing your smaller dog or cat to learn her way around your house without being carried. Even though you may think it helps your blind pet feel safe – and, let’s face it, it just feels good! – carrying around a perfectly healthy animal fosters an unnatural dependency on your care, just like it would with your human child.
- Speak in your regular tone of voice and talk often. Unless your pet is also hearing-impaired, blind animals can still hear you without needing a raised voice or a loud, squeaky tone to get your message across. Your voice can be very soothing to your pet, particularly one that is anxious or is newly blind.
- Announce your approach for your blind pet by talking and using her name. Your voice, plus walking with a “heavy” foot to make vibrations, will alert your dog that you are coming so that she’s not startled.
- Squeaky toys make good playthings for blind animals. A toy that contains a bell or a noisemaker allows your pet to follow and easily locate it while playing ‘toss and return’ or other fun activities. Toys that hide treats also work well with sight-impaired animals by forcing them to use their sense of smell.
- Keep your blind pet’s environment static so that she learns her way around and feels safe. Stick with a furniture layout you like without changing it. Place a carpeted runner or area rug in your pet’s main living area so that she can feel exactly where she can safely walk and play. Save your pet from running into things by keeping your floors and carpets picked up from shoes, toys, bags and other items.
- Open the crate door – or totally remove it – if your blind pet is accustomed to going into a kennel to eat or sleep. If she tries to go into her ‘safe place’ and hits the door, she may injure herself and/or become so anxious she no longer wants to use the kennel.
- Fence off any hazardous areas (ponds, swimming pools, etc.) that your blind dog might wander into while she is playing outside in the yard. Even if she knows how to swim, deep water can be treacherous if your pet can’t find her way out of a pool. Hang a wind chime by the door so that your pet knows exactly how, and where, to get back into your house. You can place a ‘warning track’ of mulch or bark chips 1 to 2 feet around any trees, building or posts that will help alert your dog that danger is close.
- Continue to socialize your sightless dog while letting others know your pet is blind. Clothe her in a vest or bandana that says “I’m blind” and lets other doggy parents know of her disability. Let your pup smell new people and animals before allowing her to be petted or play with new acquaintances. When meeting other dogs, remember your dog will not be able to “read” their body language. So take things very slowly. In addition to an identification tag, get a tag for your dog’s collar that says, “I’m blind.”
Caring For a Deaf Pet
Some pets are born deaf from congenital abnormalities. Other animals can go deaf from a variety of causes, ranging from chronic ear infections or injuries to drug toxicity and old age. If you suspect your pet might be deaf, try this test: wait until your animal is asleep or not looking at you and make a loud noise behind him, say experts at The Deaf Dog Education Action Fund (DDEAF), a non-profit organization geared to assisting the lives of hearing-impaired dogs.
Training your deaf pet can be as easy as learning hand signals, instead of vocal calls, say animal behaviorists. The key to working with a deaf pet – just as one who hears – is kind consistency. According to the WebMd website, the secret is having a clear hand signal for each action you want the animal to learn. Both cats and dogs can be trained using hand signals, but pet parents may need to consult with professional trainers knowledgeable in working with these disabled animals to get the best results.
Safety concerns for your deaf pet can be overcome using common sense solutions. Keep your deaf cat inside and your deaf dog on a leash or in a fenced yard if outside. To keep track of your pet – put a bell on her collar or harness. Get your deaf pet’s attention during the day by going over and touching her; at night, flick a porch light, flashlight or room light to get her attention. Let other pet owners know your dog or cat is hearing impaired by wearing a bandana or vest that says “I’m deaf.”
According to the DDEAF, the myths and misinformation surrounding deaf dogs causes many animals to be sent to shelters or euthanized when a little knowledge would prevent such tragedies. For example:
- The “Startled/Aggressive” or “Time Bomb” Myth – Many people believe that, deprived of its ability to hear, the deaf animal walks through life easily startled by whatever crosses its path. According to myth, over time, these constantly startled dogs develop fearful, aggressive personalities; they will bite when startled, or attack for no reason. The truth is that deaf dogs adapt to their hearing loss, and become comfortable with their surroundings. In the same way a hearing dog can be startled by a loud noise, a deaf dog can be startled by an unexpected touch. A deaf dog can be conditioned to wake easily in response to a gentle touch. Pet parents of deaf animals can flap their hands in the air, gently blow on the pet, or flip a light switch on and off to alert the dog or cat to their presence before walking up.
- The “Never Live with Children” Myth – As long as a deaf animal is well-socialized to children, and those same children are taught how to approach the pet in a quiet, respectful manner, hearing-impaired animals can be incorporated into the family unit. Your kids will need to learn the same hand signals that you use to communicate with your pet, but you can make that a fun family project that benefits everyone.
- The “More-Likely-To-Be-Hit-By-A-Car” Myth – Keeping your pooch on a leash or inside a fenced yard can easily prevent your deaf dog from running under the wheels of an approaching automobile. Training your hearing-impaired animal to pay attention to leash signals and to sit and wait before walking through a door or crossing the street can also prevent accidents and trauma. One of the best ways to reinforce this is not to take the dog for a walk unless she sits and allows you to put on her leash. The dog quickly learns “no sit, no leash, no walk.”
Living With a Paralyzed pet
Having a pet at home that is paralyzed might seem overwhelming at first, however, in most instances this paralysis is only temporary and your pet will gradually regain the ability to walk and control urine and bowel movements over a period of time. Naturally, the larger your pet, the more difficult nursing care will be for you.
The following is a list of 6 helpful hints that may ease the burden of this care, whether your pet is temporarily – or permanently – disabled.
- Food and water: Give your pet her normal diet depending on your veterinarian’s advice. Make sure that water is easily accessible and your pet’s bedding is cleaned often.
- Bedsores: Also called ‘decubital ulcers,’ bedsores can develop over time on the pressure points of your pet’s body. These ulcers heal very slowly and can lead to systemic infections that can prove fatal. You can prevent them by keeping the skin dry and free of urine and feces. You may need to bathe these areas daily. The OTC Desitin® ointment used for diaper rash can be applied to areas of irritation or redness that develop. Clean blankets and a soft, padded or egg-crate mattress should be provided for a bed.
- Elimination: Depending on the extent of your pet’s paralysis, you may need to have your veterinarian teach you how to express your animal’s urinary bladder. This should be done 3 to 4 times a day until she regains physical control. Diapers with a hold cut out for the tail can help for the times you’re not at home or if she is constantly leaking urine. Most paralyzed animals defecate unassisted 1 to 2 times daily, but you’ll need to watch for constipation. It goes without saying that cleaning the perianal area of urine and/or feces is paramount to keeping your pet healthy.
- Medication/Sutures: Give all medications as directed by your veterinarians and keep surgical sites clean and dry. Any external sutures should be removed at the vet clinic.
- Hydrotherapy/Physical Therapy: Most paralyzed pets can benefit from both hydrotherapy and physical therapy to keep flaccid muscles from becoming atrophied. A daily 10-15 minute swim in lukewarm water may speed recovery time by encouraging the temporary patient to use the paralyzed limbs. Bicycling exercises and massage of the hind limb musculature also enhance blood flow to the paralyzed limbs. Please ask for a demonstration from your vet or a veterinary physical therapist on how to perform these exercises.
- Towel Sling: With larger paralyzed animals, a towel sling can help your back while allowing your pet greater mobility. With your pet in a standing position, place a towel under and across the abdomen close to the hind legs and support the weight of you’re animal’s hindquarters by holding the ends of the towel above its back. Lift your pet gently and support the rear limbs while she walks.
Too many specially-abled pets end up in shelters or rescues and too many die annually because pet owners do not know how to care for them. With family education and the help of pet-care professionals like VIP Pet Services, we hope to see that number drop and these ‘special’ animals get adopted into loving, forever homes.
Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.