by Brooke Billingsley
Bringing a new pet home can be exciting and overwhelming. Sometimes you plan for it and are prepared, and other times a pet seems to just fall into your lap and you just make things work. Some people, though, end up bringing home a pet with special needs, and that in and of itself can be daunting. You may not know what exactly they need when you take them home, but you learn as you go and we all work to give our pets the best lives possible. But what do you do when you have a special needs pet and you realize there is a need, but you aren’t sure how to fill it?
Today I’m going to talk about some considerations within the home for pets with different types of special needs. I reached out to members of the Facebook groups This creature is W O B B L Y, THIS CAT IS W O N K Y, and Cerebellar Hypoplasia Cats and Kittens, to see what different people do for their special needs pets to keep them safe, fed, and enriched. While some needs are met with commercial products, having a special needs pet may help bring out creativity you didn’t know you had.
Most pets appreciate a routine, especially when it comes to meal times, but routine timing and location can be especially beneficial to special needs pets. Many wobbly animals may have difficulty with meal times. EZPZ (@ezpzfun) bowls are well-loved within the CH cat community for their anti-slip grip, soft sides to prevent injuries to the face and teeth, and easy clean-up. EZPZs are relatively costly, around $20 for a small bowl, but you can make something similar, depending on your pets needs, with a silicone or soft plastic bowl with an anti-slip cutting board or mat attached to the bottom of it. Hot glue dots or anti-slip furniture dots can be added for additional grip.
These can be made from just about any material and it is simply a narrow “stall” to help the pet stay upright while eating.
Another useful item for wobbly pets, especially those with cerebellar hypoplasia, cerebellar ataxia, and similar conditions, is a feeding stall. These can be made from just about any material and it is simply a narrow “stall” to help the pet stay upright while eating. I have seen these made from plastic, cardboard, wood, fabric, you name it. You may still need to provide some assistance, but this will help increase balance, safety, and your pet’s confidence. Meal times for blind pets can be difficult, even for those with increased non-visual senses. Textures marking feeding areas can be beneficial, such as placing carpet squares or plastic bath mats around feeding or water areas to help reinforce to the pet what that area is for, even when food is not down. It may also be necessary to have an enclosed feeding space, such as a pack and play or small tent, for pets with various types of special needs.
Many of these ideas can be used for water as well. For pets with blindness or low vision, water fountains can help them find water by sound without stepping in it. When it comes down to it, all some special needs pets will need is just your helping hands and patience.
We have found that puzzle toys involving high-value treats, like fresh cooked meat, keep his interest
Special needs exist across a large spectrum, and we all know pets personalities vary wildly, even within species, so playtime can take a lot of forms. For my own wobbly cat, Aslan, he is food motivated and rarely takes an interest in toys. We have found that puzzle toys involving high-value treats, like fresh cooked meat, keep his interest, take him time to solve, keep his brain busy, give him a valuable payoff for effort, and improve his strength. Many pets will appreciate the same types of toys and games that “normal” pets appreciate, but you may have to work with your pet to find a play style that works for them and for you.
For small animals with special needs, like ferrets, cats and kittens, and small dogs and puppies, a baby play mat can be a safe and fun play space, as well as helping to alert them that they are leaving the “play area” with the texture change between the edge of the mat and the floor. For blind pets, different textures and scents can be fun and exciting for them, so keeping a wide variety of types of toys can be useful. Or, you may just have a cat that likes crinkled up balls of paper, and that’s ok too. If your pet likes hunting or chasing, but lacks the coordination or physical ability to run or jump safely, you may invest in toys with movement that have a stationary base, like tracks with balls or other toys inside that can be batted or moved without losing the toy. If you’re going to play with a laser pointer with your cat but you know they cannot chase it, keep the point close to them with enough effort and movement to give them enrichment and exercise. Just like humans, pets can get frustrated so you will have to work with your pet to tailor their toy box and playtime to meet their needs.
Just like playtime, potty time is going to vary significantly based on what kind of pet you have and what their needs are. With dogs, they may require assistive harnesses on the front or back end for ambulation, or you may need to carry them to their potty area on a schedule to remind them to relieve themselves. For cats, they can have multiple needs and issues when it comes to litter box use. Some cats will not use the box, in which case it may be necessary to invest in reusable potty pads or indoor grass potty pads. Cats can be particular about the type, texture, and smell of litter, so you may have to try multiple options to find what they will use. You also may need to play around with different types of litter boxes.
Aslan pees over the side of just about every box we’ve ever tried for him, and high side boxes just end up with litter kicked over the sides. What we found that worked for us is the dome shaped litter boxes with interior stairs leading into the box. The stairs help prevent urine and litter from making it to the floor. Entering and exiting a box like this requires some coordination, though, so a cat more wobbly than Aslan, or a cat with weakness or problems with their legs, paws, or hips may require an open box. Stairs into a high-sided box can be useful in these cases. Stairs can be just about anything you want or need them to be, I have even seen non-slip spice racks used as stairs into litter boxes. In a recurring theme, different textures leading to or around potty areas can be useful in guiding blind animals or animals with confusion or cognitive changes. Make sure to keep the textures for potty areas different enough from food areas to not create further confusion. Keep in mind when it comes to litter boxes that something does not have to be marketed as a litter box to be a litter box. You may have to use your imagination when it comes to finding or creating the perfect litter box for your pet.
Bedtime routines can be as different as every pet in your house. For unstable pets who like to sleep in your bed with you, building or purchasing stairs or ramps will help them safely make it in and out of the bed. Some pets may require these surfaces to be carpeted or textured to prevent falls. Blind pets benefit from minimal change in their environment, so keeping your pet’s bedding in the same areas as part of their routine will help them feel safe and comfortable. Pets with anxiety may enjoy an article of your clothing in or near their bed for reassurance. Pets with low vision may require nightlights or other types of lighting throughout the night to help them stay oriented.
Other considerations can be taken for special needs pets who like to sleep on top of objects, like tables, but are prone to falling. One person sent me a picture of an end table in her living room that she zip-tied a pool noodle to and then covered with a blanket. This essentially created a high bolster bed to allow her wobbly cat to relax on the table without risking falling. Pets with special needs that cause decrease balance or motor skills, or pets with injuries, may require your hands-on assistance to get to their sleeping area and get comfortable. Just like with feeding, many pets are happiest with routine when it comes to sleep and wake times, so find a routine that works for you and your pet.
Of all the categories discussed so far, this may be the broadest category, so I will try to touch on the high points. As previously mentioned, blind pets can benefit from various textures. One person I spoke with talked about the different types of textures they would have around the house for blind foster pets, including rugs to mark certain locations within the home, such as exits and entrances and locations that required stepping up/down. They also discussed laying cardboard and using a box cutter to cut “tracks” into the cardboard to mark walkways to specific locations, like rooms with food and water. Many people talked about using mesh, screens, or chicken wire on balconies and banisters to prevent accidental falls in pets of various special needs. Commercial items that can be used to create a safe environment for special needs pets include baby-proofing equipment, such as bumpers, cabinet locks, and baby gates. Pool noodles can be cut open and cut to size to be used to cover edges and corners to prevent injuries. As mentioned in feeding time, pack and plays or small tents, such as children’s play tents, can be useful in keeping a special needs pet in a small, enclosed area for safety and comfort.
One woman I spoke with has a cat with severe CH named Taz, and he has a bed, food and water bowls, and a low litter box in a children’s pack and play so he can stay safe and have all of his needs met whenever his fur mom is away from home. Non-slip rugs, yoga mats, and soft floor puzzle mats, often used for children’s areas, can all be used with special needs pets. I have a front tripawd dog with two bad knees, so preventing slips and falls is important in our house. We have put down multiple rugs to help her maintain balance, as well as putting down puzzle piece mats between her bed and the water bowl to help her get to and from the water bowl safely and effectively. Safety needs vary depending on the pet’s needs and the home environment, so you may have to identify safety risks in your home and work to remedy identified risks prior to bringing your special needs pet home. You may even get your pet home and realize you’ve done more than necessary, but at least you will have peace of mind knowing your pet is safe.
This has been a very broad overview of considerations and ideas to create a safe, enriching environment for your special needs pets. Needs will be different for each pet and each home will be different, so do your best to identify what you can do to meet your pets needs. I strongly encourage anyone looking to bring home a pet with special needs to find a network of people with pets with similar diagnoses or issues to function as a sounding board and support system. I am always happy to answer questions about special needs pets as well, or to help you find the right support system for your pet’s needs.