By: Rebecca Poling

Over the last several decades, society’s attitudes have changed significantly with respect to the management and treatment of people with disabilities. More recently, the same has happened with respect toward senior pets and those with special needs. Everyone remembers David Duchovny’s ads for Pedigree, and their message “Shelter pets aren’t broken.” Those commercials helped change public attitudes toward shelter animals in general, while simultaneously giving a huge boost to special needs pets.

Years ago, old-fashioned attitudes toward pets as disposable property created little expectation for shelters to do anything other than simply dispose of them. But today’s shelters and rescues see things differently – a lot differently. No longer shunned by rescues groups or euthanized in shelters, many senior pets and those with special needs are now welcomed in private shelters and rescue groups, and even in municipal shelters who work closely with transfer partner organizations to guarantee they receive appropriate care.

Most special needs animals do not need a lot of extra veterinary care, so that makes it easier for budget-challenged organizations who want to help them. Shelter-based foster home programs have proven quite effective for temporary housing of senior and special needs pets, and funding priorities for some grant-making foundations have shifted toward these pets as well.
Today it’s not uncommon to see a tri-pod dog or cat getting adopted from a shelter. Senior pets with arthritis often are popular with empathetic senior citizens and are usually not expensive to care for, needing only inexpensive medication for pain management. Blind dogs and blind cats may take longer to get used to the shelter environment or a new foster home, but with extra attention from staff and volunteers, are easily accommodated and can be appropriately rehomed. The same is true for deaf cats and deaf dogs. Even pets with mobility issues like cerebellar hypoplasia generally fare quite well in shelters with just a bit of patience and understanding from staff and volunteers. For those animals that do need extra care, there are now foster-home based rescue groups that exist specifically to help special needs animals.

Over the years, I’ve fostered and adopted many special needs cats and dogs. We adopted a blind cat into our home six years ago and brought him to Arizona when we moved here. We didn’t need to make any special accommodations for Franklin, other than to insist he be an indoor-only cat. He relied on his hearing, used his whiskers for navigation, and got a little extra help from the sighted kitties in our home. Prior to that, we fostered and adopted out a deaf kitten with mobility issues caused by cerebellar hypoplasia. Other than being extra vigilant when Annie insisted on climbing tables and jumping off, she required very few accommodations and no non-routine veterinary care. Her wobbly gait and tilted head only made her more endearing to those who met her.

Despite what you might think, many special needs pets are often quite popular with adopters. They are not pitied or viewed differently, and often find homes with compassionate people whose friends or family have similar disabilities, or with individuals employed in care-giving professions. Verde Valley Humane Society recently placed an adorable Chihuahua named Albert who suffered from cerebellar hypoplasia with a local nurse, and the organization currently has a senior cat awaiting adoption who suffers from a permanent (but endearing) head tilt caused by a recent stroke. I’ve adopted sightless kittens to the daughter of an optometrist, a deaf cat to a deaf teenager, and countless other special needs pets to loving, forever homes.
Special needs pets may not be for everyone, but most are easier to care for than you might think – and they provide every bit as much love and companionship. You can find a senior or special needs pet waiting for you today in area shelters and rescue groups.

Rebecca Poling has been in the animal welfare industry nearly two decades, working with private and municipal shelters, rescue groups and coalitions. She and her husband, and their cats, moved to the Verde Valley from Dallas 2-1/2 years ago and now help local non-profit organizations and small businesses with grants, events, fundraising, social media, web design, graphic design and advertising illustration. Find out more at