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Pets 101

Three paws are better than four

Adopting a disabled pet can be a life-altering partnership-for both of you

By Trish Bendix

When it comes to pet adoption, most of us have an idea of what we’re looking for when we go to the shelter. It seems we all want a happy, healthy puppy or kitten, who’ll likely spend a modicum of time waiting to be chosen. All pets take work (not to mention time and money), so it’s no wonder that shelters can have a difficult time finding loving matches for disabled animals. “What we consider handicapped [in a pet] is a condition we’re not able to cure,” says Kiska Icard, programs manager of San Francisco’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Despite the best medical treatment, the condition must be managed with medication or some sort of therapy.” Icard says the SF/SPCA can house anywhere from 300 to 500 animals (the latter number during summer’s hefty kitten season), and estimates that about 10 percent of them are handicapped in some way. However, she thinks that it’s becoming less of an issue, at least in the San Francisco area, since people are looking to shelters instead of breeders for their new best friends. “As people are becoming more educated and making sure their pets are spayed or neutered, we’re seeing less animals go to the city’s shelters,” Icard says. “Now less pets are being surrendered, and I can be working with cases that need rehabilitation to find them homes. Five years ago, I would never been able to look at them.”

Abby Smith, executive director at Chicago’s Felines Inc., says that her shelter hasn’t had a big problem adopting out special-needs cats.

“The three-legged ones go quickly,” Smith says, noting that she has only one cat that could be considered disabled because of a missing limb.

She does see an issue, however, adopting out cats with FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus). While often compared with HIV (the name is the most common link between the two), FIV does not turn into an AIDS-like virus (though it can be fatal if left untreated), Smith is quick to point out.

“It is a chronic illness,” Smith says. “There’s a fear around it more than anything else. We have a space for our FIVers [and only offer them] to understanding people. All they need here is good diet, a stress-free environment, and some extra dental care. They can live 90 percent healthy, happy lives and die of natural causes.”

Icard herself took in a terminal dog as a foster, and she’s already surpassed her life expectancy—times four.

“SF/SPCA looked at [Violet] when she came in from another shelter and gave her a three-month prognosis,” she says. “They said her heart could go out at any time, and I took her on. It’s been easier than I thought; she’s pilled twice a day.” Smith also says that attention is the most important aspect in a loving guardian for a disabled pet.

“I think it takes a little more care and patience,” she says. “Cats are very low maintenance so a cat with a disability needs just a little more of both. There’s nothing so different about a three-legger; there’s one less paw to clip the nails from.”

Mark Robinson, founder and creator of New Hampshire-based online retailer www.Handicapped-Pets.com, says that there have been miraculous advances to help disabled pets, including the power of massage.

“Wheelchairs for dogs have been a lifesaver for many, as it allows a dog with a bad hip to get exercise and play,” Robinson says. “Pet diapers are a wonderful invention because they allow a leaky dog to sleep in bed, get up on the couch, and wander freely around the house. And massage is a wonderful healing gift—we have a video called Bodywork for Dogs that warms my heart each time I see it.”

A bigger issue for people considering a handicapped pet is money. It’s easy to assume that, depending on the disability, a pet would incur more visits to the vet, increased medical costs, and other expensive aids, such as the aforementioned wheelchairs or diapers.

“Financially, there is not a ‘most expensive’ disease, any more than there would be with people,” Robinson says. “Any of these disabilities can be expensive.”

Icard says people should ask their local shelter or veterinarian if there is a program that could help them with the vet-care costs.

“That shouldn’t be the reason they’re adopting,” she says, “but it never hurts to ask if there’s any medical support.” However, on a nationwide scale, Icard admits there isn’t much in the way of monetary support for handicapped animals.

“There are so many animals [in general] in need of homes that that’s where the tax dollars go, and it’s unfortunate,” Icard says. “How do they end up in shelters? People make tough decisions and give up the companion they love because they don’t have the resources and surrender [him] to a shelter.”

When it comes down to the fundamental reasons for adopting an animal, disabled pets can give people twice the love as they not only bring joy to a household, but a person can see the daily gratefulness in giving his pet the gift of life.

“You think it’s a sacrifice but it’s not,” Icard says. “I take [Violet] around, and people’s eyes light up. They say, ‘She looks so good, so healthy.’ Now she’s doing animal-assisted therapy, and going back and giving to so many people. She was originally surrendered in a drop box, abandoned in a locker, now she goes to parties and is her own kind of celebrity. You think it’s a sacrifice, but you [are] one of the 10 percent that can actually say, ‘I’ve saved this [disabled] cat or dog and I’ve given it a great life.’”

Trish Bendix is a Chicago-based freelance writer and mother to Stella, her one-and-a-half-year-old black Pug.

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