Life with a Disabled Pet: Tools and Tips That Help
A freak accident when he was a puppy left Mike and Joyce Dickerson's dog with a broken back and partial paralysis. The vet recommended that Duke be put down. "But the whole time she was talking to me, Duke was wagging his tail. I couldn't do it," says Joyce Dickerson, who owns an athletic-shoe store and fitness club in Prince Frederick, MD.
Instead, she did what an increasing number of pet owners are doing: She learned to live with a disabled animal. New veterinary advances and products-including wheelchairs (known as veterinary carts), diapers, braces, slings, protective booties, and ramps-have made it possible for animals that once would have been put to sleep to lead long, happy lives.
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But these helpful tools and customized devices aren't the only reasons more vets are finding themselves assisting owners with special-needs pets, says Walter Renberg, DVM, a professor of small-animal surgery at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "Today, people consider their animals part of the family," says Renberg. "They're less willing to euthanize a pet if there's something they can do to sustain that relationship."
And often there is something they can do. Search disabled pets on the Internet and you'll find sites like www.handicappedpets.com that offer a plethora of products to keep an incontinent cat dry, a double-amputee dog mobile, and a partially paralyzed ferret frisky. There are also nonprofit support groups such as Dickerson's www.petswithdisabilities.org that can connect you with other owners of special-needs animals and offer advice on how to care for them.
Living with an animal that's not perfect has its costs, but it can have a big payback. Here are some questions to ask yourself when making your decision about what to do.
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How Limiting Is the Problem?
A deaf dog or a blind cat doesn't require much more effort than an able-bodied animal. You may need to teach your collie to respond to hand signals (and, of course, never let him off the leash around cars), or avoid redecorating so your Himalayan doesn't bump into furniture on her way to the litter box.
Even some paralyzed animals and those who've lost limbs don't need much extra gear-or help. Rebecca Kornblum's gray and white female cat, Danny, for example, shoots around Kornblum's Dallas home on powerful front legs, dragging her useless back legs behind her. Though the cat uses a ramp to safely climb onto the bed, Kornblum says, "She could get there anyway-she just crawls right up the side."
Danny is not unusual. "Most animals adapt to their disabilities far better than people do, mostly because they don't have the mental anguish that goes with being disabled," says Gina Davis, DVM, an assistant clinical professor of outpatient medicine at the University of California, Davis, Veterinary School, and owner of a one-eyed dog.
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Can I Be Vigilant?
Many paralyzed animals lose bowel and bladder control, so owners may need to manipulate the animal's bladder several times a day to empty it, as well as carry their pet outside to defecate. In this case, size is a major consideration, says Davis. "It's much easier to deal with a 12-pound dachshund than a 100-pound Great Dane. We don't want to make owners feel guilty if they can't-for many reasons-handle that Great Dane who has lost bowel control."
Paralyzed animals can also develop sores and ulcers in insensitive limbs, and amputees are more prone to arthritis in their overworked good legs. Those are just two reasons why owners of disabled animals need to be alert for complications that may develop. Susan Hobbs says she always keeps one eye on her brain-damaged cat, Truffles, who once set herself on fire while hovering over a candle and sometimes tries to climb into the oven. "She's very sweet and pretty, but dumb as a bag of hair," quips Hobbs.
Can I Handle the Cost?
If your pet has a chronic illness or paralysis, the cost of caring for him may increase exponentially. A cart like Duke's can set you back as much as $450, a pair of protective booties nearly $60, and a course of physical therapy roughly $500.
And seriously impaired animals may need frequent-if not 24-7-nursing care. Debbie Kazsimer spent an estimated $17,000 on medical bills, alternative treatments, and a cart for her German shepherd, Sheba, who became a quadriplegic as the result of a degenerative disease. That was a high price tag for this guitar teacher and singer from Jeannette, PA, and her postal worker husband, Ken. To prevent bedsores, Kazsimer needed to turn the 85-pound animal every 2 hours, day and night, for her remaining 2 years.
Kazsimer knows that most people would have euthanized a dog like Sheba, who eventually became paralyzed from the neck down. But as long as the dog appeared to enjoy her life-"If she could still catch her football, she was happy"-Kazsimer was committed to providing Sheba with a quality life. Despite the steep financial and emotional cost, Kazsimer doesn't regret a minute or a dollar she spent on her pet. "We had such a strong bond," she says. "I know she would have given up her life for me."