British veterinarian and author James Herriot once remarked, “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” At this festive time of year, when the general notion of spirit is both commemorated and celebrated in twinkling color and light, few pet parents would disagree that companion animals are the true physical embodiment of soulful, unconditional love.
Yet what about animals who are physically challenged? What about those who are limited in mobility, unable to see, or to hear? Sadly, these animals have even more difficulty finding or keeping a nurturing home of their own. An estimated 2.7 million healthy shelter animals who fail to find adoptive families are put down each year, according to the Humane Society of the United States. With euthanasia an imminent threat for the multitude left behind, what options exist for those with special needs?
Enter Joyce Darrell and her husband, Michael Dickerson. Together, they oversee Pets With Disabilities (PWD) in Prince Frederick, Maryland. PWD serves as a resource for animals who have been physically challenged since birth, disabled by illness, or injured through trauma. They also facilitate rescue and adoption placements when possible. Its goal is to provide ongoing, specialized support for shelters attempting to place these special-needs pets, and for the caring families who eventually choose to embrace them.
“These animals may have certain physical issues that impact the way they interact with the world,” Darrell explains, “but their love, loyalty, and exuberance remain intact. Everyone who meets them agrees that their spirits definitely are not broken. With the proper adjustments, most are perfectly capable of living a full, joyful life. Our goal at PWD is to help guide them toward that better life, and a loving forever home.”
Darrell didn’t start out to establish such a haven. In fact, fifteen years ago she and her husband were newly adoptive pet parents, having met a vigorous, energetic young Shepherd mix, Duke, at their local rescue. While playing with another puppy one day, Duke suffered a tragic accident that severed his spinal cord.
“The thing is,” Darrell recalls, “all dogs provide us with unconditional love every day of their lives. I encourage allpet parents to remember that. When we adopted Duke, our commitment to him was utterly mutual. He still had that love to give; he was still young and vibrant—he just had special needs. We resolved to help him live the best life possible.”
Several months later, Darrell and her husband adopted another pup named Misty, who had been passed over by hundreds of potential adopters due to hind leg problems. “It didn’t take us long to realize there was no real system of support or education for people dealing with disabled pets,” Darrell says. “We created Pets With Disabilities to serve as the voice for these animals.”
Today, PWD is home to nearly 30 disabled dogs. Its website offers regularly updated courtesy listings for disabled dogs and cats available through other shelters and rescue organizations. The sanctuary is 100 percent supported by donations from the public. It hosts several fundraisers throughout the year, accepts “Angel Sponsorships” for specific pets, and distributes a digital newsletter. Both Darrell and Dickerson live on-site, personally caring for the animals along with a small staff of trained volunteers and a team of trusted healthcare providers.
“We don’t take in fosters,” Darrell explains. “All of the dogs here are full-time residents, and we gradually familiarize each one with our free-range facility. Allowing the animals to play with each other in the open air greatly assists with socialization. It also helps us monitor each pet carefully, because we learn about their unique personalities as we watch them interact. We even have a 24-hour camera indoors, where they sleep.”
Over the years, PWD has developed a loyal network of highly specialized veterinarians. “We always ask ourselves how we can go the extra mile to optimize each dog’s mobility and quality of life,” Darrell says. “Our healthcare team—including an internist, general practitioner, orthopedic surgeon, and a veterinary ophthalmologist—constantly steps up to think outside the box.”
Darrell estimates that a minimum of $2,000 in preliminary support, diagnostic, and healthcare fees is spent on every new pet upon intake. Just one example is the amazingly resilient Brody, a blind Yellow Lab mix who arrived at PWD with a gravely invasive heartworm infection that is now being successfully treated.
The shelter’s comprehensive adoption application process helps to safeguard the well-being of these special animals. “Applicants generally need to reside in our immediate region, to ensure that they can get the pet back here if there’s a problem,” Darrell explains. “We need to meet them in person, we need to meet their existing pets, and Mike and I will typically stay at their house for an hour or two when we drop off a newly adopted dog. This ensures a smoother transition for everyone.”
In what is certainly a positive reflection of PWD’s socialization and support practices, adopters often return to take in a second dog at a later date. In fact, this trend actually increased in 2014. Pairing a disabled dog with a companion pet can have enormous socialization benefits provided the two animals get along, Darrell says.
Megan, a blind Lemon/White Hound mix who resides at PWD, is a prime example of this pairing dynamic in action. “Megan is like our animal ambassador,” Darrell says. “She has enormous empathy, knows these grounds inside and out, and brings all our new dogs into the fold. She’s especially nurturing toward the ones who are nervous coming in.” And Annie, a resident wheelchair dog who recently passed away, exuded a sweetness and benevolence that pets and humans alike found heartening and endearing.
Many veterinarians have witnessed this intriguing dynamic firsthand. Dr. Janel Zuranski, medical director at Boulder Terrace Animal Hospital in Naperville, has cared for many disabled pets in her practice. “When you pair a special-needs animal with an existing pet, they often help each other develop key coping skills,” she observes. “Remember, these animals don’t understand the idea of ‘disability,’ so they’re amazingly accepting of their situation. Dogs, in particular, rely on their noses—so with a few common-sense living adjustments, blind dogs usually become very active members of the family. Even a deaf dog will learn to watch his caregiver for cues, because dogs rely on our body language far more than we realize.”
While PWD has rescued several dogs from other regions—including countries as far away as Turkey and Russia—it strives to focus the bulk of its efforts in the eastern region extending from North Carolina up through Pennsylvania. “Our job is to nurture these pets and to find them a wonderful home,” Darrell explains. “That’s our mission. And if they can’t find a home outside of this one, we’ll be their family for life.”