Special pets with special needs
Here at the SPCA we celebrate animals of all shapes, sizes and abilities. Whether they have three legs or four, are hearing or deaf, have 20/20 vision or cannot see, all animals have the ability to be happy thriving companions.
Sadly, however, these animals are sometimes overlooked in shelters due to misconceptions. Read on to discover the stories of six SPCA pets with special needs who showcase just how adaptable and valuable all animals are. Keep an eye out for our animal care tips too. Who knows, you may be tempted to adopt a special pet of your own!
Chica was brought to the SPCA as her owners were no longer in a position to care for her. When she first arrived, she seemed like every other puppy that comes into the SPCA. She was very sweet with soft white fur, and she loved to play. However, after a few days in our care, the SPCA canine attendants began to think little Chica was deaf.
They noticed that she was completely unaware of when they were behind her, and she didn’t notice other dogs barking at her. She was taken to the veterinarian for a full assessment and it was confirmed that she was indeed deaf. After her diagnosis, the team knew they had to adjust the way they trained Chica. Instead of using verbal commands, the team came up with hand signals to train Chica to ‘sit’, ‘stay’ and ‘heel’.
She learnt quickly, and proved herself to be a plucky and sweet-natured pup. Soon, she was ready to be adopted. The team were looking for the perfect family who would continue Chica’s training and help her live a happy life. Deaf dogs often bond closely with their owners, so the team wanted someone dedicated who could be a trustworthy leader to Chica. It wasn’t long before the perfect match came along. Brett, his partner, and his son Max were looking for a canine friend to join their family.
They met Chica and fell in love, taking her home the next week. Chica now lives a very happy life – she goes to work with Brett every day and loves to run around the house chasing sticks and balls. She is a very sociable girl and wins the hearts of everybody she meets – including the family cat, with whom she has made good friends.
Chica’s family have been continuing her training and Brett says he is using a one-handed version of sign language, which leaves his other hand free to hold her leash, for example. “She will come, sit, lie down and stay. She also knows ‘good girl’ and ‘no’, and will wait to eat her food until I give the command. She is very smart, but you have to be patient with her. It’s really rewarding training her.”
Training deaf dogs
It’s as easy to train a deaf dog as a hearing dog – the only difference is you use hand signals instead of verbal commands.
Consider making a list of the most important signs you want your dog to know. Make a list of the signs that are important to your family, prioritise them and begin with the foundation skills: ‘watch me’, ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘stay’, ‘come’. You can even teach your dog a sign for ‘I love you’! ‘Watch me’ should be one of the very first skills your dog learns. By teaching them to constantly check in with you, you are always able to communicate with them, and keep them safe in the event of a dangerous situation.
While many people teach their dogs the New Zealand Sign Language, any hand signal will do, as long as you’re consistent. When the dog performs the correct command, give them an open flash of your hand or a thumbs-up to visually mark the correct behaviour and then give a treat.
It’s a good idea to find a certified trainer in your area who only uses positive-reinforcement techniques to support your dog’s training.
Caitlin the goat was rescued by an SPCA inspector after she was found wandering on the side of the road, with only three legs keeping her upright. One of her back legs had clearly suffered a serious injury. Caitlin’s injured leg was causing her so much pain and discomfort that the difficult decision was made to amputate it. After her surgery, she received special physical therapy from our rural animal technician.
which included a custom-made balance board. She quickly adapted to life on three legs, and was otherwise a very healthy and happy goat with lots of personality. She was very friendly, and loved the company of people, cuddles, and playing around.
After weeks of rehabilitation, Caitlin was ready to find her forever home. Her ideal home was somewhere that wasn’t too hilly, with soft grass to make it easier to move around. She also needed a covered area to sleep in at night, and a family that would spend quality time with her. We were delighted when Caitlin found her perfect place with a kind woman named Madelaine. Caitlin was renamed Lola and moved in with her new family which includes other adopted SPCA animals – pigs Cookie and Bruce, and a goat friend Smokey.
Caring for pets with three legs
In most cases, your pet can be perfectly happy and healthy on three legs – remember this if, unfortunately, you ever have to decide whether or not to have your pet’s leg amputated. Most animals adapt very quickly after surgery and cope very well on three legs. Create ‘no-slip zones’ in your home where your three-legged pet frequently travels.
With farm animals like Caitlin, level terrain makes it easier for her to get around. Make sure your three-legged pet maintains a healthy weight. Excess weight can strain joints and put animals at risk of injury or other health issues. Monitor your pet’s activity levels and watch for signs of fatigue; having to support their body weight on three legs instead of four can tire your pet out.
Freid and Theia's story
Fred and Theia are a very special pair: Fred is blind, and Theia, his sister, is his close buddy and ‘guide cat’. They like to spend time together and they make a great team. They came to the SPCA as strays, before spending some time in foster care.
Their foster mum took great care of them, and got to know them well. She knew exactly what kind of home they needed – somewhere they could be kept inside, as it is not safe for Fred to be outside. They also needed somewhere nice and quiet, where there wouldn’t be too much change, as Fred does best with a constant environment so he can learn his way around. And, because they were so close and Fred relied on his sister, it was important that they go to a home together.
It wasn’t long before this charming pair found a devoted home with Ali and Tyler. The couple had wanted a cat for a long time, and saw Fred and Theia’s profile on the SPCA website. They went to meet the pair and fell in love. A few days later, they took Fred and Theia home, where they quickly made themselves right at home. “You might think that Fred would be cautious and careful, being blind, but he’s absolutely the opposite. He races through the lounge at full speed, suddenly stopping and jumping to attack imaginary butterflies in the air,” says Ali. “Theia on the other hand is very calm and collected.
She will sit quietly watching Fred race around the room, and will barely flinch when he tumbles over her multiple times in the space of a minute. “Neither of us has had a blind pet before, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but Fred has been fantastic. He has been using the litter tray from day one, and is always the first to the food bowl when we rattle the biscuit tin.”
Ali says that although Fred has learnt his way around for the most part, sometimes he will get stuck on a windowsill or on top of the couch and will need help getting down. But he quickly gets the hang of it and will confidently jump down the next time without a problem. They have also had to ‘Fred-proof’ some areas of the house to stop him getting stuck as he likes to squeeze into small spaces.
“We are more conscious of what Fred’s doing, especially as we let him explore new rooms in the house,” she explains. “We’re so glad that we adopted Fred and Theia together, because they’re great company for each other,” says Ali. “Theia’s calm personality has helped Fred settle in too. He seems to get more worried when he is alone, but when she is nearby he is much more chilled. We are so in love with Fred and Theia, and can’t imagine not having them around the house – they’re both a constant source of entertainment and affection.”
Caring for blind cats
For your blind cat’s safety, it’s best to keep them indoors. An enclosed outdoor area, such as a courtyard or a screened window, will allow them to enjoy the fresh air, sunshine, smells and noises from outside while remaining safe.
Even though blind cats can’t see, they love to play just as much as any other cat. There are lots of toys available to stimulate a cat’s hearing and sense of smell, like catnip-stuffed toys. Blind cats can be more easily startled than others, so be sure to let your blind cat know you’re coming, and don’t sweep them up off the floor without an introductory ‘hello’ and some gentle petting. If you need to change or rearrange furniture, lead your pet around the new layout a few times to help ease them into the change. Try and view the world from their height, and keep floors and passageways clear.
Honey and Bear's story
Honey and Bear were brought to the SPCA after a member of the public spotted them being given away outside a supermarket. She brought them to the SPCA so that we could find them the right home.
When they first arrived at the SPCA, it became apparent that their thick coats needed extra attention and care. Bear’s coat was so knotted that he had to be shaved to get rid of his matting, but he was given a lovely knitted jumper to keep him warm! Honey and Bear are Jersey woolly bunnies, which are renowned for their long fluffy coats. Because of this, they require a lot of maintenance to keep their coats knot-free. This is particularly important because the knots can become quite painful if they are not managed.
Rabbits like Honey and Bear need a dedicated owner who will groom them regularly. It’s best to brush their long fur several times a week, to keep their coats soft and sleek. Some rabbits who have particularly long fur, like Bear, will also need to be clipped to stop it growing out of control!
Bunny grooming tips
Brush your rabbit regularly to keep their coat looking clean and healthy. Some breeds, such as Jersey woollies and angoras, need a lot more grooming than other breeds. Try to make grooming a positive experience for your rabbit.
Let them see and smell the brush a few times and, while you do this, reward them with a piece of fruit or vegetable so they associate the brush with something positive. Start off with shorter grooming sessions until they are used to it. Sit on a chair so that they can’t jump off, or at least in a small pen with them, so you don’t have to chase them to get them back if they run away. There are a few different types of brushes you can buy. Test out which ones work for you and your bunny’s fur.
Generally, thin flea-style combs are good for removing knots – just make sure to be gentle. Flatter paddle brushes with thin bristles are good for general brushing. Wide brushes with big soft rubber bristles are good for when they shed between seasons, as they help remove excess fur. Lastly, be sure to use positive.
Chill Bill's story
When Chill Bill was found as a tiny stray kitten, he was very underweight and had trouble walking. He was brought to the SPCA where our veterinarians diagnosed him with a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia, or CH for short.
CH occurs when the cerebellum, the part of the brain which controls physical coordination, is not completely mature at birth. Cats with the condition aren’t sick, weak or hurt; they’re simply a little uncoordinated. In fact, Chill Bill is full of beans! He’s very playful and sociable, and he loves cuddles.
Chill Bill’s cute quirks quickly won Millie and Niwa’s hearts, a young couple who decided to adopt him into their family. “He’s a little wobbly on his feet, but we reckon that makes him cool and unique,” they say. He has since been renamed Kyza, and his new family are smitten. He has settled quickly and charms visitors with his adorable nature and super social skills.
Caring for a cat with CH
The severity of the condition differs from cat to cat. Some, like Chill Bill, have a very mild form of the condition, whereas others may walk with their legs splayed and experience frequent balance loss and falls.
Unless a cat with CH has other health issues, their life expectancy is the same as a cat’s without it. Since the condition is non-progressive, it will never get worse. Cats with CH will often adjust in time and learn to do things differently. For example, some CH cats don’t have the coordination to jump, so instead they become great climbers.
Cats with CH are best kept as indoor pets to keep them safe from the road or climbing and falling. Cats with moderate CH will benefit from modifications in the home. Cats often slip and slide on hardwood or tiled floors, so having carpet or rugs will help them get around better. An accessible eating area, with elevated dishes that are not easily tipped over, will also make things easier for your cat. It’s also a good idea to use ramps to make elevated spots more accessible, such as the couch. These will help your cat be happy and safe in their home.