Pets with Disabilities

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, DAAPM.

Our culture is experiencing an ongoing evolution of the human-animal bond: the family-pet relationship. Veterinary care has progressed to a level that supports longer life expectancy in pets that are also benefiting from better nutrition and protection from infectious diseases and parasites. Early detection of diseases allows for a better quality of life for a longer time. As a result, the surge in the senior and geriatric pet population is not unexpected. In fact, it is not so rare to see cats 20 years of age and older and small- to medium-breed dogs in their late teens.

The fact is, however, that if we do a good job while they are young and protect them with regular preventive veterinary care, they will probably live long enough to develop a progressive degenerative condition. These conditions can lead to a disability and dramatically alter their activities of daily living (ADLs).

"Pets today may live long enough to develop a progressive degenerative condition..."

In addition to the potential to develop a disability with age, some pets are born with their disabilities, and live their entire lives in an altered state. Some pets with disabilities (e.g., those with a missing limb) are obviously different from their cat and dog friends. Others have “hidden” disabilities (e.g., deafness). Our improved state of veterinary care increases the probability these pets can live a normal (or nearly normal) life expectancy with a good quality of life.

How can I help make my pet with a disability comfortable?

No matter the origin of the pet’s disability, these family members need and deserve for us to plan ahead to provide for their unique needs.

Not that long ago, if a pet faced an illness, injury, or birth defect that seriously altered her body, causing a change in activities of daily living, euthanasia was a common outcome. Of course, everyone’s concerns were for the animal’s quality of life, and it was easy to presume that a loss of the normal routine might result in an unacceptable quality of life. As veterinary medicine has advanced, so has our understanding of how to keep pets comfortable and engaged in the face of previously devastating conditions.

"Relieving pain is the number one priority for any pet facing a disability."

Relieving pain is the number one priority for any pet facing a disability. Many excellent pain management strategies are available, depending on the cause for discomfort: medication, nutrition, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic care, physical rehabilitation, etc. With so many options, we can provide comfort care for a wide variety of pain-generating issues, whether or not they are directly related to a specific disability.

• Once a pain relief plan is in place, we can focus on any elimination issues (urinary or fecal incontinence) that may be present. For instance, in the case of paralysis, the pet will need assistance to urinate. Whatever the elimination issues, the veterinary healthcare team will provide whatever guidance and instruction are needed.

• After resolving pain and elimination issues, we can next focus on mobility. Mobility compromise occurs on a spectrum, from weakness to a chronic joint injury, paralysis to limb amputation. Adapting the pet’s lifestyle to accommodate compromised mobility is often limited only by the imagination. Packs and modified infant slings can be used to carry cats and small dogs. Larger dogs can often be transported in a wagon pulled by their humans. Pets with rear limb paralysis or profound weakness often learn quickly how to use a wheelchair that they pull behind them. If the front legs are compromised, there are modified wheelchairs available. Other types of assistive devices can help with everyday mobility as well.

What if my pet has a hidden disability?

Some disabilities are not immediately obvious to the outside observer but still require lifestyle adaptations. It is important to think through what these pets need in the way of day-to-day support and then help them live their very best life within their limitations.

"It is important [these pets] live their very best life within their limitations."

Blindness can be acquired or present from birth. Blind dogs should not have unsupervised access to stairs, for instance, although blind cats can generally negotiate them safely. Blind animals can be trained to localize and follow sounds such as clicks and whistles. In a household with more than one pet, a blind pet will often rely on another animal in the household to lead the way.

Deafness is quite similar to blindness in many respects. It can be acquired or present from birth. Deaf pets must be protected from traffic and other unpleasant surprises but can otherwise live a fairly normal life and have a normal life expectancy. See the handouts “Living with a Deaf Dog” and “Living with a Deaf Cat” for specific advice on helping an animal with hearing loss.

Other invisible disabilities include issues affecting mentation (mental awareness), such as cognitive dysfunction and anxiety disorders. These are no less real than the loss of a limb, and they require their own specific management strategies.

If your pet has one of these hidden disabilities, your veterinarian can help you create the best plan to help your pet cope.

What is the takeaway message?

No matter the issue that makes a pet different, difference alone need not mean the end of a life. Your veterinarian is your best source for accurate information, guidance, and support when making and executing a plan for the care of a disabled, special-needs pet. Enthusiasm coupled with pragmatism can carry the day for these special animal companions.

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