by Lisa Stahr
As the founder of Scout’s House, a physical rehabilitation therapy, boarding, and daycare center for disabled animals, I know what it means to live with a special needs pet. My dog Scout had many special needs and her life was a learning experience—for both of us. She had to learn how to navigate through life partially blind, partially deaf, brain-damaged, and with severely weakened rear legs. And I had to learn how to help her create some kind of life in the face of her disabilities. There was a time when she was young—and I’m not kidding here—where Scouty couldn’t even figure out how to get out of the corner of the room without my help. In time, though, she mastered that—and so many other things, like how to walk without falling, how to use her nose to find what she wanted, how to eat without biting her tongue, how to bark. All of these things, which come so easily to other dogs, were accomplishments for mine, and we celebrated every milestone along the way.
And while Scout taught me a lot about the unique demands of special needs pets, she wasn’t my first pet with a disability. That honor would have to go to Bear, a black-and-white Manx cat whom I adopted when she was 8 years old. Her owner was one of the first AIDS patients in San Francisco and, although it broke his heart, he had to give her and her 5-year-old daughter up as he entered the hospital one last time. When I found Bear, someone had already adopted her daughter, but nobody wanted her because she was “too old,” so I took her. Truly, one of the best decisions of my life. Bear was a sweet, sweet cat who loved me more than tuna fish, which is saying a lot. And although she was “old” when I got her, she went on another 13 very robust years, living to the tender age of 21. And along the way, she and I faced a challenge not unique to Manx cats: urinary incontinence.
I saw one vet after another, looking for a way to help her stop leaking urine. But all of them said that because she had no tail (she was a dimpled rumpy, for those of you who speak Manx), she had poor nerve input to her sphincter and would always be incontinent. But we dealt with it because that’s what you do when someone you love is disabled. I didn’t know about disposable diapers for pets back then or any of the other special products that exist today to help make life easier for incontinent pets (and their owners). Instead, I just put out layers and layers of old towels in all of the places where Bear liked to sleep and I did far more loads of laundry than anyone else my age. I also learned how to clean Bear to avoid urine scald, how to give her an enema when her neural input was too weak to tell her to do the job herself, and a hundred other things I never thought I’d have to do for my cat. But it was what Bear needed to stay comfortable and I’ve never thought that animals deserve any less than what I would do for a human being.
While Bear was still alive, Nick joined our family and I’m happy to say he’s still going strong today at 16. (Evidently, I pick cats with good genes.) Nick was a black cat in a managed colony that lived near Sunset Magazine, and one day he showed up at the food bowl my friend put out with a badly mangled front leg. It took my friend a month to trap Nick (he was—and still is—a very wary soul) and by that time his leg had shriveled up from lack of use. There was no such thing as rehab therapy back then, so my veterinarian amputated the leg and Nick began life as a “tripod.” He adapted beautifully, but there were a few accommodations we learned to make for him, like elevating his food and water bowls, putting out rubber-backed rugs on our hardwood floors for extra traction, and getting a cat box with a low lip.
A few years later, those changes would be appreciated by Squirt, a little black-and-white kitten who had just been hit by a car when I found him. He lost a back leg to that accident, but he gained a home from it—a home where he was greatly loved and where his mobility issues were (pardon the pun) taken in stride. From Squirt I learned that pets don’t have the emotional baggage of physical disability that humans do. He didn’t care that he was missing a leg and it certainly didn’t hold him back from enjoying every minute of life that came his way. He ate with enthusiasm, slept with abandon, and played as if every moment was utter joy. I swear, when he and Nick used to chase each other around the house, you could almost hear them laughing.
Today, we have Geronimo, a champagne tabby who was mysteriously paralyzed as a kitten and came to Scout’s House as a patient, thanks to the kind hearts of the rescue group Peninsula Cat Works. Whether he’ll ever walk again or even urinate on his own remains to be seen, but at Scout’s House we continue intensive therapy with the hope that it will make a difference someday. To be honest, G couldn’t care less—he just thinks it’s great fun, even if we do have a strange sense of how to play. And at home, we put in ramps so that he can drag himself up to the places the other cats easily jump to, we buy training pads by the caseload so that we can express him with a minimum of mess, and we keep bottles of waterless shampoo around the house for quick clean-ups.
Like Squirty before him, G doesn’t know he’s disabled. To him, life is all about eat, sleep, love, play—just as it is for almost every other pet I’ve ever met, disabled or otherwise. And that’s what I love about animals, and about special needs pets in particular. They don’t worry about what was or what could have been, they just enjoy what is.
I should be so wise.