Photo: melissamn/Shutterstock

Why You Should Adopt a Special Needs Pet

by JoAnna Haugen May 24, 2010
Why I adopt special needs and older pets.

The animal shelter was crowded with people huddled around the kennels holding kittens. Teenage girls oohed and aahed as they held the tiny lumps of fur in their hands. Mothers gently placed kittens in their childrens’ arms, showing them how to properly hold the critters.

And then there was Toby. Full grown and more than a year old, he lay by himself on a cat climber in the corner of the room, lazily licking his paw. This scene was nothing new to him, especially considering he’d been living at the shelter for nearly a year.

When my husband walked into the room, a young girl had been petting Toby.

“How about this one?” she asked her mother.

“We don’t want a broken cat,” her mother replied.

That had been the story of Toby’s life since arriving at the shelter. No one showed any interest in the cat with one eye, half an ear and half a tail. So we did the only logical thing: We adopted Toby.

Why We Do It

Toby is not our only adopted critter. In fact, my husband and I made the decision long ago never to have children and began adopting special needs and older animals instead. Though I could go on for hours about our choice to have animals instead of kids, suffice to say that I believe that, in a world that is already overpopulated, there is no need for me to reproduce. I also believe that a lot of women have children because they think they’re supposed to, or they’re pressured into doing what their mother, grandmother, sister, best friend or hairdresser tells them to do.

Not me. I make the decisions about my body, and one of the things I’ve decided with my husband is that we’d much rather provide a comfortable home for a handful of four-legged critters instead of children.

The Special Needs Problem

In many ways, Toby is a normal cat. He needs no special medications and doesn’t have any medical problems due to his physical shortcomings. We can’t sneak up on his blind side and occasionally he loses his balance, but he loves lying in the sunshine and pouncing on toys just like any other cat.

Many people see physical deformities in an animal as a sign of a shortcoming, but this just isn’t true. Nor is it true that an animal with a medical or mental problem is any less of an animal. The real problem is that they require extra care—perhaps medications or a special diet—and possibly more vigilance, which sometimes equates to more money.

Many people see physical deformities in an animal as a sign of shortcoming, but this just isn’t true.

For people who just want to adopt a pet and not a family member, this added expense is an issue and many of the animals who have special needs are cast aside for more ideal models.

My definition of special needs doesn’t just encompass noted physical or mental issues. Many animals that are rescued have been neglected or abused, and they have emotional scarring that requires special attention. My husband and I adopted our dog, Butch Mbwa, from Kenya, a logistical and financial nightmare that was worth his happiness. Though it takes him a long time to feel at ease around unfamiliar men and he still gets nervous at the dog park, he lives a safe and comfortable life now.

Older Animals

Everyone wants to adopt a new, cute, perfect animal, but kittens and puppies don’t stay small forever, and many of them are returned to the shelter once the novelty of having a pet wears off. This doesn’t make sense to me personally; the pets we’ve adopted are our family members, and the idea of returning a kid to the hospital after a few months is ludicrous, yet people surrender animals all of the time.

Just as special needs animals are at a disadvantage when it comes to being adopted, so are adult and senior animals. I’m not sure why people are so hesitant to adopt older animals—perhaps they think of them as used or past their prime of life?—but my husband and I go out of our way to adopt older pets for several reasons.

Older animals are already trained and require a lot less moment-to-moment maintenance. They’re significantly more laid back than younger animals, and they’ve had time to develop a demeanor and personality, so you know what you’re getting when you adopt.

However, older pets may require additional care or medications, which equates to a larger financial commitment.

We know that when we adopt older animals, they won’t be with us for a lifetime, but I like to know that we’re providing a relaxed place for them to live out the remainder of their lives. Our Chihuahua/Boston terrier mix, Bianca, for example, joined our family when she was 10 years old. She is deaf, has a heart murmur and is now nearing the elderly age of 12. The vet told us she’ll probably live to be 15 or 16, so we don’t have a long time with her, but we’ll care for and love her until her last day.

Adopting older animals also gives us the opportunity to provide more animals with a home. We can’t adopt every needy animal that crosses our path, but by adopting older pets, we know we’ll be able to provide more of them with homes over a longer period of time.

Adoption Considerations

Adopting a special needs or older pet is similar to adopting any pet, but there are additional considerations. Instead of jumping in to the decision, you really should think about all of the circumstances surrounding the animal’s needs. One of the worst things that can happen is you find the fit is wrong, forcing you to surrender the animal you’ve just adopted.

If you’re thinking about adopting a special needs or older pet, there are a few things you need to ask yourself, including:

Adopting a special needs or older pet is similar to adopting any pet, but there are additional considerations. Instead of jumping in to the decision, you really should think about all the circumstances surrounding the animal’s needs.

1.) What are the additional financial costs? Think about any special medications, treatments or diet plans your pet will require. Animals with mobility issues may need therapy while those with medical problems might require more vet visits or surgeries. Older animals will need to have their teeth cleaned more often than younger animals.

2.) Can I accommodate the animal? Special needs pets might need medications at certain times of the day or particular living arrangements so they can move around. As a caregiver, you’ll need to make sure you are available to meet these needs or find a way to address them before introducing the animal to your home.

3.) How will the animal fit in with the rest of the family? Animals with emotional issues may feel overwhelmed with young children or a lot of people in the house. Additionally, introducing new animals into a home where pets are already living can be a challenge. Before you adopt, inquire about any environmental conditions the animal cannot tolerate. Some organizations allow you see if a pet would be comfortable living in your home with a short-term “fostering” period. This might be an overnight stay or a few days.

Where to Adopt

Special needs and older animals everywhere need homes, so you won’t need to look far to find one to adopt. If you need somewhere to start, consider these places:

1.) Your local humane shelter. Many cities have an animal shelter packed to capacity. Inquire about those animals that have been there the longest, are the oldest or need special care.

2.) Animal database networks. There are rescue groups that take in stray or abandoned animals all over the world. Once the animals are immunized and spayed or neutered, they’re placed in an online database that people can search based on animal type, breed, age, size, gender and special needs. In the United States, for example, Petfinder offers a service that matches people with the ideal pet, even if they initially live thousands of miles apart.

3.) Breed-specific rescue groups.

If you’re interested in adopting a specific breed of animal, chances are there is a rescue group that would be happy to place a pet in your home. Rescue groups often receive the animals saved from breeding mills that are shut down; they also get greyhounds that can’t run anymore, pit bulls that have been banned due to city restrictions and dogs who don’t otherwise “live up” to the hype of their breed.

4.) The street. Though it isn’t safe to approach a wild dog or feral cat, if a stray animal adopts you, consider adopting it. If you’re considering adopting an animal off the street, ask around the neighborhood first. In many nations, animals roam around without identification, and what may appear to be a stray actually belongs to someone else. In many other places, however, the concept of a pet doesn’t even exist and the animals on the street truly are homeless.

5.) Foster. If you absolutely must have a kitten or puppy, consider adopting an older or special needs animal, then volunteer to foster young animals that need to adapt to socialization or grow older before they are suitable for adoption. It feeds the need to have cute, young animals, but still allows you provide a forever home for those who are less likely to be adopted.


Have you ever adopted a special needs or older pet? Tell us about your experiences.

Want to meet some of the Matador community’s pets? Check out this Matador pet photo essay.

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