Owners Offer Tips on Caring for Pets With Special Needs

Partially paralyzed Duke relies on a wheelchair to get around. Inspired by his fearless approach to life, owner Susan Holler dedicated her life to helping pets through a company called BOGO Bowl. Morieka photos

Caring for a disabled pet can be challenging, but owners say rewards outweigh the work. Many use Facebook and blogs to spread the word and offer encouragement to others who face the difficult task of helping pets adjust to life with chronic or debilitating physical issues. In honor of Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, we offer a few pearls of wisdom from people who opened their homes to rescued dogs and cats with special needs.

Create a routine

Maintaining order is essential, says pet owner Kimberly Serino of Long Island, N.Y., whose four-legged family includes one diabetic dog and two partially paralyzed pooches. In the Serino household, everyone wakes at 5 a.m., and the busy mom sends healthy pets outside first. Dogs that need assistance take the second wave, followed by a glucose check for the diabetic pooch.

“If you can take care of a toddler, you can take care of a handicapped pet,” says Serino, who uses Facebook to help other paralyzed pups find homes around the world. “It doesn’t cost much, and they are just like any other animals.”

Moki the Wobbly cat
Moki the Wobbly cat getting e-stem accupuncture. thewobblycat.blogspot.com

Consult a specialist

About five years ago, college student Crystal Fogg fell in love with a feral rescue kitten named Moki that resembled her childhood pet. Shortly after Fogg took Moki home to foster and socialize him, he became extremely ill and was later diagnosed with a condition that is very similar to cerebellar hypoplasia, caused by the panleukopenia virus. The disease impairs a cat’s central nervous system, leading to coordination issues. Now Moki is known to his Facebook fans as “Moki the Wobbly Cat.”

“Veterinarians said he would never sit up on his own, never be able to walk,” Fogg says. Instead of giving up on Moki, Fogg sought a second opinion from neurologists at UC Davis and set up fundraisers to cover the cost of an MRI and spinal tap. Although there is no cure for Moki's neurologic condition, specialists at UC Davis devised a treatment plan to improve his coordination. Over time, the California cat’s condition has improved thanks to acupuncture (he's getting treatment in the photo above) and even hydrotherapy treatment (see video below).

Moki’s veterinary care hasn’t been cheap. Fogg estimates that she has spent about $50,000 on his care. But Fogg says that Moki’s experience will help specialists find new ways to treat pets — and people — with neurological conditions. She also pays it forward by helping those who cannot afford expensive rehabilitation. After graduating from college, Fogg found work as social media director for Scout’s Fund, a nonprofit organization that underwrites the cost of small animal physical rehab for assistance dogs, pets from low-income households, shelter animals, and working dogs. The position allows her to promote options that keep people and special needs pets together longer.

“There are not enough people taking their pet to a neurologist, and there isn’t enough research on treatment,” Fogg says. “That’s scary for pets and people. A lot of human research comes from vet research. If we don’t understand the treatment of conditions in animals we cannot help humans.”

In addition to the rehabilitation, she notes simple things that make home life a little easier for “wobbly” cats. Moki has a raised feeding dish, and puppy training pads help reduce the risk of accidents. Since Moki’s condition can lead to sharp drops in body temperature, Fogg also stocked up on microwavable Snugglesafe heating pads. Carpet runners cover bare floors to help him avoid falls. Moki’s cat companions also provide a bit of normalcy.

“The cats love him to death,” Fogg says. “One taught Moki how to groom himself and she makes him groom the top of her head. They lay on the floor because they want to be close to him and they treat him like a regular cat.”

close-up of partially paralyzed dog Duke
Susan Holler / forloveofcatsanddogs.com 

Prepare for the road less traveled

When Susan Holler learned about a partially paralyzed dog named Duke that had been shot like a stray, she decided to take action. But she already had two healthy Lhasa Apsos, and her homeowners’ association set a two-pet limit. Holler could not adopt the Boxer-Staffordshire terrier mix without their approval.

“I really felt deep down that I was the one to take care of Duke,” she says. “My only concern was finding care for Duke when I had to travel out of town. But I knew, in the whole scheme of things, that was a minor issue that would be worked out.”

Holler’s association never had a chance. One look at those deep brown eyes (just look at that photo above!) and they approved the new addition. Aided by a donated Walkin Wheels wheelchair, Duke enjoys twice-daily walks with Holler. Since he cannot urinate on his own, she must manually express his bladder to avoid the risk of infection. Duke also cannot jump up on the couch for cuddle time, so Holler makes sure he has a soft, comfy bed to rest his body at the end of a busy day.

“His sweetness and determination make me smile every day,” she says. “Caring for him is so rewarding.”

Duke’s story inspired Holler to help other pets — and the people who love them. Earlier this year, she joined forces with Sarah Henderson to promote a company called BOGO Bowl, which donates dog food to needy pets for every bag purchased on the site.

“We are a team — he is part of my purpose,” Holler says, noting that Duke has his own Facebook page with more than 3,000 followers. “He is an inspiration to me and so many other people.”

dog assisted by lifting harness

Get the right gear

After noticing the lack of resources for people with pets that are disabled or injured, Mark Robinson created HandicappedPets.com to provide information, products, and support. In addition to the website, about 50,000 Facebook fans share messages of encouragement, and the company donates wheelchairs to help pets, like Duke, find forever homes.

“My business was built by the community, who collected around the idea and told me what they wanted and support me,” says Robinson. “Now, they tell all their friends.”

dachshund with drag bag

Using community feedback, Robinson designed the Walkin Wheels adjustable pet wheelchair and has watched demand spread across the globe. Walkin Wheels accommodates dogs up to 180 pounds, with prices ranging from $249 to $529. HandicappedPets.com also sells supplies, such as no-slip boots and orthotic braces. When not using their wheelchairs, Robinson says partially paralyzed pets frequently get carpet burns, so the site sells heavy-duty “drag bags” (photo at right) that protect their back ends. Lifting large dogs also can be difficult, so many pet owners invest in harnesses (photo above) to support hind legs.

“They have such varied anatomies that we make them washable because they do get soiled,” Robinson says. “I tell customers to get two — one to wear and one to wash.”

heat lamps for disabled pet
 Lisa Osman

Call for reinforcements

While most veterinary technicians spend their days administering shots and assisting with dental cleanings, Lisa Osman prefers to make house calls. Most of her four-legged clients are geriatric or have special needs. On some house calls, Osman administers subcutaneous fluids. Other visits involve teaching clients to hide medication in pill pockets, inexpensive Tender Vittles, or tuna-flavored liquids. For Osman, the work is more fulfilling than a veterinary clinic setting because she gets to help pet owners get acclimated to long-term care.

“People leave the vet's office and kind of feel like they’ve been run over by a train,” she says. “I try to make [treatment options] simple and explain why they are doing what they are doing.”

Osman says simple adjustments, such as adding heat lamps in a comfy spot (photo above), can help pets age gracefully.

Schedule an appointment with your vet and request a tutorial on administering medication. If the task is too daunting, they may be willing to do house calls or offer a referral. The American Holistic Veterinary Association offers a search tool to find veterinarians who make house calls in your area.

dog Vexy in wheelchair
Kimberly Serino /  

Do it yourself

In spite of the challenges, Serino stresses that in-home care trumps pet hospice facilities, which have emerged as an option for elderly or severely disabled pets. (That's her dog Vexy) After volunteering for seven years with a New York nonprofit hospice facility called Angel’s Gate, Serino says these organizations simply cannot provide the same level of care as a pet owner.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals bolstered her argument with the release of undercover footage showing disabled pets living in squalor at Angel’s Gate. Susan Marino, chief executive of Angel’s Gate, now faces animal cruelty charges. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also filed a lawsuit in September charging Marino with failure to file financial reports. Marino recently announced plans to dissolve Angel’s Gate and find homes for about 180 of the physically disabled animals.

Dan Paden, a senior research associate with PETA's cruelty investigations department, notes that New York is one of the few states that does not provide oversight for pet hospices, rescues or shelters. He adds that PETA would support more regulation to protect pets.

“We see lessons here for all animal guardians that we must stand by these animals we share our homes with until their last day,” he says.

Accept that two legs — assisted by two wheels — are faster than four legs

Scooter the border collie
Scooter the border collie with wheelchair.  T.J. Jordi

When Scooter first arrived at the Cheatham County Animal Control in Pegram, Tenn., officials thought the partially paralyzed pooch had been hit by a car. Instead, they found three bullets, one of which had severed his spine. Colleagues recommended euthanasia, but animal control officer T.J. Jordi had other plans and adopted Scooter that day.

Jordi now runs the shelter, and Scooter is its spokesdog. He also has served as grand marshal for the Special Olympics and enjoys a larger Facebook following than Jordi. Aided by a Walkin Wheels wheelchair, Scooter has no trouble keeping up with his German shepherd companions — or speeding past them. Once the wind hits his fur, Scooter is long gone. (He looks ready to take off in the photo above.)

“Just because he’s paralyzed doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with him,” says Jordi, who ends each day with a ritual scratch-fest, scratching all those spots that Scooter cannot reach alone. “Don’t be afraid to take the challenge; it will enrich your life. It’s not their fault that they are high maintenance, but don’t be afraid to take that leap. The dog isn’t.”

paralyzed pit bull Hope in wheelchair
Eagles Landing Veterinary Hospital

Update: Remember Hope, the partially paralyzed pit bull featured in a Treehugger rescue story? (Watch her video.) Walkin Wheels donated a chair to Hope, and this high-energy pooch is ready to roll. All she needs is a forever home to call her own. For adoption information, email Christy Simpson.