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Looking to Adopt? Consider a Disabled Pet

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Every year, countless numbers of disabled pets are saved from being euthanized by people and families who take the animals into their homes, and provide them with the special love and support they need.

Virginia Johnson from Hamilton, New Jersey, was looking to get a new pet when she found herself in a quandary: Should she adopt a deaf cat from the local rescue or a blind cat? Sadly, both were up for grabs. With two blind Collies at home, she decided being practical was the answer.

"The blind cat had just lost its sight and wasn't used to dogs,'' says Johnson, a volunteer with Pets with Disabilities, a not-for-profit that helps put physically disabled animals into great homes. "I chose the deaf one so I wouldn't stress any of the animals.''

So she wouldn't stress the animals.

It's a mentality that's typical of Johnson and advocates like her who save the lives of countless numbers of disabled animals each year through adoption.

The wisdom of disabled pets

According to some estimates, there are plenty of lives be saved. Of the average 300 to 500 animals at a typical animal welfare organization, approximately 10 percent qualify as disabled. They're often also the last to be adopted.

"You cannot ask for a better human being than somebody who saves a dog or cat with a disability from being euthanized,'' says Joyce Darrell, who, along with her husband Michael Dickerson, started Pets with Disabilities in 2000 out of their Maryland home.

Since then (and despite the fact they both work full time -- she owns an athletic shoe store and he's an elevator mechanic), they've adopted out hundreds of animals, many through their web site,  which draws about 1,000 visitors daily. They've also traveled across the country to promote their mission: to provide a positive voice for dogs and cats with disabilities that desperately need homes.

"It's been difficult,'' she said, "but we're finally starting to find the small percentage of people we've been looking for to give these animals a chance.''

Unique experience

Consider Debbie Richie from Charlottesville, Virginia. Talk to her for more than five minutes and you can't miss the fact that special-needs animals have something soulfully distinct to offer.

"You form a different kind of bond than you do with healthy dogs,'' said Richie, who adopted a wheelchair-bound five-year-old Boston terrier named Teddy from Darrell's organization. "I can't explain it, it's just special.''

"I tell people that it might take a few months to get adjusted, but that they'll never have a more gratifying experience,'' said Darrell, who with Dickerson has rescued 16 disabled dogs (six of which are in wheelchairs) of their own and a cat born with one eye.

"What people don't realize is these animals can do anything,'' said Johnson, whose blind collie, Lady, practices agility and "reads'' with special-needs kids every Friday.

Moving through the process

While the process of adopting varies depending on where you go, at Pets with Disabilities, it's simple.

With no fees or red tape to navigate (in fact, Darrell and Dickerson give wheelchairs to people who adopt dogs and cats that need them), the couple has prospects fill out a standard questionnaire that asks for references and proof that the home environment is appropriate.

Then, for adoptions within a 100-mile radius, they invite people over for a meet and greet and, if all goes well, to leave with the animal of their choosing. Out-of-state adoptions are handled on a case basis.

Getting ready

Just as important as the adoption is the preparation that goes into bringing the animal home. Darrell recommends owners:

  • Have a plan for where it'll eat, sleep, and exercise. For example, when Richie leaves for work, she places Teddy on several comforters (sort of a makeshift playpen) with his food and water bowls.
  • Pet proof the physical environment. Make sure there's nothing protruding or with sharp edges that can be harmful.
  • Carve out time to spend with the animal, especially in the beginning, when it needs help adjusting to new surroundings.
  • Make sure they have the necessary equipment. There are not only wheelchairs available for disabled animals, but also ramps, steps, beds, and harnesses.
  • Embrace the differences between cats and dogs. Cats tend to be very self-sufficient and don't always need the same kind of care and attention as dogs.
  • Be prepared to treat them as normally as possible. "How do you exercise a wheelchair dog? By taking it for a walk,'' Darnell said. "The only difference is you may have to help it along.''

She and others agree that adopting a disabled animal is not that far afield from adopting a healthy one -- with benefits. "When I'm with my animals, all of life's problems just slip away,'' she said.

"In a few short weeks, I'll know six more things about having a deaf cat because that's how it goes when you adopt a special-needs pet,'' Johnson said. And like the others, she said, "it will be wonderful.''

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