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Adopt a Special Needs Pet

By Colleen Williams
May 20, 2015 • 4 min. read
special needs pet

You wouldn’t know it, but this two-year-old German Shepherd is mostly blind. (

In honor of Turn Beauty Inside Out Day, we’re celebrating special needs pets! TBIO Day is a grassroots effort to promote body positivity specifically for young girls. Sometimes we can all use a little reminder that beauty is only skin deep – what counts is on the inside.

There are thousands of special needs dogs and cats across the country waiting for their forever homes. The majority of these pets face euthanasia without being adopted – 2.7 million pets are euthanized every year. A PetFinder poll found special needs pets are the third-hardest animals to place, behind senior petes and pit bull-type dogs. Many of these “less adoptable” pets spend up to two years waiting for a forever home, more than four times the average wait.

special needs pet

Noro is a rescue cat with Feline Leukemia, caused by a virus in cats. (

While some are wary of adopting a special needs animal, others are only too happy to provide a forever home. In “The Power of Three Legs,” co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society Faith Maloney says disabled animals are often the first to be adopted at the shelter. “It wasn’t long ago that any animal coming into a shelter with a defect – be it three legs or one eye – was considered unadoptable and automatically destroyed,” says Maloney. “But just as there are trends for certain breeds of pets, the trend now in adoptions is toward animals that come with public- ity attached or with readily apparent war wounds.” This isn’t necessary a good thing – with the rise of so many “animal celebrities,” shelters are often overwhelmed with adoption requests for a few pets at the expense of many others. While this publicity can be a boon for the pet in question, there’s only one available for adoption; many potential adopters will leave empty-handed without considering other animals.

In animals, the definition of special needs is fairly broad, including physical and mental disabilities. Some pets with severe, debilitating cases of post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety from past trauma may be considered special needs. Other types of special needs pets include amputees, the deaf and blind, and those with chronic illnesses like FeLV or hip dysplasia.

There are many common myths about special needs pets. Let’s clear a few of those up.

blind cat special needs pet

Most blind animals live perfectly normal lives, completely unaware of their condition. (

Blind pets need constant monitoring.

Actually, blind cats and dogs are no different than other animals! A blind pet doesn’t know what blindness is or that he has it, so they act like a regular dog or cat. “Blind cats can do pretty much everything that a seeing cat can do,” says Blind Cat Rescue, a permanent housing sanctuary in North Carolina. “They can climb trees, climb up on top of cabinets and get into places that you cannot figure out how they did it.”

When caring for a blind pet, it’s important to maintain a consistent household. This means keeping food and water bowls, litter boxes and furniture in the same spots; blind pets navigate using their other senses, so moving things can confuse them. Dog trainer Cesar Millan recommends blocking off dangerous areas like stairs or pools with a baby gate, and laying down carpet runners or creating a “sniff path” of air fresheners on your pet’s regular route.

deaf dog special needs pet

Training a deaf dog is no harder than a hearing one; dogs rely more on visual cues than the sound of your voice. (

Deaf dogs are untrainable.

Many animal shelters initially can’t tell if a pet is deaf; they look and act just like a regular pup – because they are. While many deaf dogs are easily started even by the lightest touch, with regular training they can be desensitized. “Deaf dog owners do take special measures to alert the dog to their presence before walking up to, or touching the dog,” says the Deaf Dog Education and Action Fund.

A vibrating or “vibe” collar is used to train deaf dogs in a way similar to clicker training. Because dogs rely more on visual cues and body language than spoken words – they don’t understand English, after all – training a deaf dog is no more difficult than with a regular pup. One pet parent recently made news for teaching her deaf Great Dane American Sign Language; many trainers teach their hearing dogs ASL commands as well.

three legged dog special needs pet

Pet parents often say “tripawds,” as they’re affectionately called, seem to have even more energy and a positive attitude. (

Three-legged pets have mobility issues.

While it’s true an animal amputee won’t be winning any races, the majority of dogs and cats get along on just fine on three legs. Many report their three-legged pets seem to have an extra zest for life and are particularly spunky. Tripawds, a community for pet parents of three-legged animals, encourages strengthening your dog’s abdominal core muscles to compensate for missing limbs, rather than excessive walks or runs.

Many tripawd dogs wear a special harness that allows for easy maneuvering of stairs and cars, while others can provide extra support. The location of the missing limb can make initial recovery difficult for some pets. “The front leg accounts for approximately 70 percent of the dog’s strength and balance,” says Seattle pet hydrotherapist Sheila Wells. “That is why front-leg amputees often have a more difficult time adjusting to their new state. The rear can follow but the front has to lead.” This can put strain on your pet’s other joints, exercise caution when exercising and watch for any signs of strains or sprains.

Now that you’ve unlearned some misconceptions of special needs pets, are you ready to adopt one? Not every pet parent is suited to adopted a special needs dog or cat – lots of patience, time and often money is required. Many shelters will cover the lifetime costs of pets, just wanting them to find a loving forever home. If you’re considering pet adoption, ask at your local shelter about special needs pets or find a specialized rescue in your area.

(Featured image via

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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