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Putting the 'Special' In Special Needs Dogs

Special needs dogs

I woke up this morning to the sound of soft footsteps, as if someone was trying to sneak around my house. From the breathing beside me, I knew my husband was still asleep in bed, so it wasn’t him. I stuck my arm straight out off the side of my bed and a moment later, a warm, wet nose and whiskers pressed into my palm. I stroked velvety ears before the fuzzy head and body they are connected to settled down beside my bed. It was Nala, my special needs dog.




I didn’t set out to adopt a special needs dog. Over time, we discovered the little (and big) things I didn’t expect from an otherwise-healthy mutt. A deformed toe that makes her paw twist outward as she walks, something that doesn’t bother her now but will most likely lead to early-onset arthritis. Elbow dysplasia, a genetic condition common to a couple of the breeds in her mix. Then, the biggie: liver cirrhosis, which changed everything.

She was a little under 4 years old when we found the liver cirrhosis. It explained her yo-yo weight, something we thought was a product of too much food and not enough exercise at best, and a thyroid disorder at worst. Instead, it was probably a result of her liver being alternately able then unable to function normally. That showed on the ultrasound, where her vet pointed out the repeated scarring and regrowth of her liver. Even diseased, it’s an amazing thing.

It wasn’t until long after I paid the veterinary nutritionist two time zones away for Nala’s custom diet that I realized how absurd that may sound to an outsider. But when your liver can barely process normal food properly, asking it to process medication is out of the question. So instead, Nala is on a custom diet with proteins selected for how easy they are to digest and other ingredients selected to go easy on her food allergies (another issue that stems from liver malfunction). While this vegetarian never thought she’d learn to prepare meat, it’s what my dog needs to survive.

You wouldn’t know Nala is a special needs dog by looking at her. Today, between the custom diet and the 14 supplements she gets daily, she’s in the best shape of her life. She’s almost 5 years old and has boundless energy. The dog that once refused to let her paws leave the ground now excitedly jumps rocks and boulders on hikes without hesitation. Half the time, I think she runs ahead just so she can run back to us and jump those boulders again.




happy one legged dog Countless “special needs” dogs languish in shelters. People often think it’s simply too much work. I understand; I was one of them until my own dog became a special needs pet. The surprising thing is how easy it can be. Dogs take work, whether they’re normal or special needs. Once you get into a routine, it really doesn’t matter what that routine is. It becomes easy when you love your dog.

If you’re thinking about adopting a dog, please don’t let a “special needs” designation scare you. I can’t tell you how many dogs I’ve seen run happily, as if they don’t even realize they’re missing a leg. Many medical conditions are easily managed with regular vet visits and medication. Even blind and deaf dogs are trainable; you just need to hire a good trainer to help.

Regular vet visits and a good trainer are something any dog could benefit from, right?

Of course, some special needs take more work than others. If you’re considering a special needs dog, get a realistic picture of what it takes to care for that dog. You may be surprised what you’ll find easy do for a special dog.

And that’s perhaps the greatest thing about special needs dogs: They really are special. I don’t know if it’s the resilience that comes from their circumstances, the joy they get from appreciating what they do have, or the appreciation they seem to show for what you do. Whatever it is, they have some of the best personalities in the world. Their exuberance, affection, and love are unmatched. My Nala is a magnet wherever we go because her personality simply shines.

That makes it easy to do whatever she needs to keep her healthy and happy for as long as I possibly can.


If you liked this, you may also like:

  Big Black Dog Rescue Desperately Needed - How to help another group of dogs that gets left behind.

  How To Play With Your Dog - 5 creative ideas for enjoying time with your dog. Adaptable for various needs.

  DNA Tests For Dogs - How I found my dog's mix and knew to keep an eye out for elbow dysplasia, etc.



Photo credits: Sonia Charry/ (top left), Kolin Toney (bottom right)

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