Caring for Special Needs Pets

In February 2021 I saw a request for a foster for a stray dog from the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a region known for hundreds of stray dogs called “Valley Dogs”. A concerned citizen had seen an injured dog begging for food outside an auto body shop, dragging its hind legs. Colorado-based Red Fern Animal Rescue was willing to transport him to Colorado and sponsor his medical care, but only if they could find a committed foster willing to take him.

That foster was me.

Rocky had been hit by a car. The accident broke his spine and pelvis, which left him incontinent and unable to walk normally. He wears a diaper and walks with the help of a wheelchair, but he is completely unphased by his disability and is a silly, happy boy.

Even though he is well-behaved and loves people and other dogs, we couldn’t find a home for him. After eight months with no adoption interest, I made it official and adopted him myself. I realized during that time just how hard it is to find adopters for special needs dogs; people saw him as a burden, but to me, he is a gift.

Honestly, caring for Rocky brings me joy. Someone told me once that when you get a new tattoo you are conscious of it for the first week, and after that, it just becomes a part of you. Caring for Rocky was just like that. At first, I was so conscious of his diaper change schedule, but after a week it just became a normal part of my day.

Now, every diaper change comes with a rendition of “the diaper song” we made up and a kiss on the nose.

Everyone needs a loving home

There are hundreds of special needs animals like Rocky looking for new homes whether they are deaf dogs, blind dogs, or have missing limbs.

The reality is that animal shelters across the nation are dealing with pet overpopulation, and in some regions, there are not enough resources for even the perfect puppies and kittens that don’t have life-long medical conditions. In an environment where there are hundreds of homeless animals to every one adopter, special needs animals are overlooked.

“Special needs” come in all shapes and sizes. Some (like Rocky) require physical accommodations, some require medication, some just require a little patience.

It is often assumed that special needs pets will require a ton of extra care, but many just require different care.

Special needs pets are not aware that they are different, and they adapt better than you might think!

What to do if you are considering getting a special needs pet

toys for blind dogs

Here are some animal care tips if you are considering adding a special needs pet to your family or foster home:

1. Foster first

Fostering is a great way to see if you and your home are a good match for an animal. Many shelters and rescues have a “Foster to Adopt” program that gives potential adopters a trial period before committing.

2. Ask questions

A foster or shelter staff member may have already discovered helpful tips and tricks for managing their condition. If you have specific questions or concerns about pet care, be sure to voice them.

3. Talk to your vet

Before and after adopting a special needs pet, talk to your veterinarian about the care they will require both presently and for the rest of their life. Be sure to also inquire about the cost of that special care, so there are no surprises!

Worried about the cost of care? Check out our post on How to Get Help With Vet Bills through financial assistance programs.

4. Tap into the community

There are many resources available to you. Look into joining community groups online or on social media for pet parents of all types of special needs animals that share advice and support.

5. Be realistic

Consider your work hours, the layout of your home, what you can afford for veterinary care, etc. Be honest and realistic about the commitment you can make to your next pet whether or not they have a physical disability.

It’s worth it

Special needs animals have much to teach us about resilience. Looking only at his x-rays, vets say that Rocky will never walk again. When they meet him and see him dancing around and playing with other dogs, they can’t believe it. Rocky, like so many others, just needed someone to give him a chance. I’m so glad I did.  

If you are not in the position to adopt a new best friend but special needs animals hit you right in the feels, support a shelter, humane society, nonprofit rescue group, or rescue local to you so they can save special needs lives by fostering, volunteering, donating, and advocating.