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Living with a disabled pet: Rolling Dog Ranch tells you how

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Adopting a disabled pet can be a very challenging and rewarding experience. If you ran into Patty Franz and her 14-year-old Cocker Spaniel Dexter on one of their usual hikes in Spokane, Washington, you might think they looked like any ordinary pair out for a little exercise. But the truth is they’re not.

Dexter is deaf and facing blindness due to glaucoma. And Franz is at a crossroads in terms of what to do about it. “I could not face the possibility of euthanasia, and yet, I knew he was in trouble,” she said, concerned that losing his sight would leave Dexter with little quality of life.

Like so many other people whose pets are struggling with a new or recurring disability, Franz found herself asking some hard questions. Would Dexter adapt to being deaf and blind? Would she be able to provide him with the care he needed to lead a happy life?

Then, she found Rolling Dog Ranch -- a sanctuary for animals with disabilities -- and wrote to them for advice. “Their long and compassionate response,” she said, “changed everything.”

The counselors are in

It makes sense when you consider the source: Steve and Alayne Smith who, in 2000, started the nonprofit enterprise that sits on 160 acres in Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley. Today, they’re home to almost 90 physically, mentally, and neurologically challenged cats, dogs, and horses.

In addition to caring for these animals, the Smiths offer free counseling to people from all over the globe on how to deal with a newly disabled pet. Like Franz, some want help negotiating ethics, while others want to simply give away the animal and the problem. In 98 percent of cases, the Smiths try to help them see that it isn’t as bad as they think.

“We remind them animals aren’t human,” Steve Smith says. “They have a remarkable resilience that we don’t. Once we get people to stop projecting their own fears onto their pets, everything gets much easier.”

Dealing with disability

While some conditions are worse than others, few if any, he says, are insurmountable.

For example, taking care of a deaf dog can be as simple as using hand signals to communicate and building fences to keep it safe.

And taking care of, say, a three-legged cat can be an easy matter of using a ramp for steps, Smith said. “Although cats by nature, even disabled, are very self-sufficient so people don’t worry about them as much.”

Still, it’s blindness that’s trickiest for many of the five to 10 people who find Rolling Dog online and reach out to them each week. To help their pets, Smith recommends that they:

  • Get on their hands and knees and walk around in the dark. That means moving around the house and yard to make sure there’s nothing sharp or protruding in the physical space.
  • Help the animal make a mental map of the environment. Putting a radio by the water bowl or litter box and playing it gently in the background helps the animal associate it with the item.
  • Consider the animal’s personality and set expectations accordingly. If a cat is confident and calm, it’ll be that way blind or not.
  • Remember common sense. Don’t rearrange the furniture and make sure to have a fenced in yard for the dog or cat to romp safely.
  • Don’t scent the walls. It’s not necessary, as some might suggest. Animals learn fast. They only need to bump into a wall once or twice to get it.
  • Ask the veterinarian for a referral to a specialist. A veterinary ophthalmologist will be more familiar with the intricacies of an animal’s eyes and rarer eye conditions.
  • Be aware of the financial commitment. Blindness is often just a weigh station for chronic eye problems that can become costly.
  • Expect to be pleasantly surprised. Once people relax, it’s amazing how quickly they stop thinking of their animals as disabled.

Disability is not a death sentence

Take Evelyn, for example, a blind Lab who came to Rolling Dog from a local animal control after she’d been found abandoned. “We didn’t teach her to play fetch,” Smith said. “But one day, she found a tennis ball, dropped it at our feet, and stepped back. Nobody would ever think a blind dog would want to play fetch. But now, she plays for hours.”

Case in point: Disability doesn’t have to be a death sentence—to the contrary.

“If I were blind and deaf or couldn’t maintain my balance, I’d probably sit in the corner and feel sorry for myself,” Smith said. “But these animals don’t know what self-pity is.” He says they simply want what every animal wants—to be loved, cared for, and safe.

“Everything Steve wrote me has been true, “Franz said. “Dexter and I are doing very well. It’s a whole new chapter and, despite everything, we’re enjoying life.”

Photo kindly provided by Rolling Dog Ranch

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D. the very proud mother of a blind rescue dog.
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