What You Need To Know Before You Adopt A Special Needs Pet

Bronwyn Gruet/The Dodo

Adopting a special-needs pet is an amazing experience. And while there may be new challenges that come with their needs, there are so many ways to help your best friend thrive. We spoke with Dr. Amanda Schnitker, medical director at Companion Animal Hospital River North in Chicago, for advice on how to not only keep your special-needs pet comfortable, but also how to give them their best life. Here are her pro tips for preparing yourself and your home for your new family member.

Establish a financial plan 

First, consider where you stand financially and whether you’re in a position to care for a pet with considerable health demands. Vet visits for a healthy dog can average anywhere from $540 to $2,400 over their lifetime, but a dog with a long-term illness like renal disease or cancer can wind up costing twice as much, with medications alone ranging from $45 to $500 initially. Specialized medications can also be costly in the long run, so investing in quality pet insurance can help offset some of the more expensive costs, especially if frequent vet visits are needed to maintain your pet’s health. So before bringing a special needs pet home, outline your budget, see what you can afford, and find out what their health costs might be to get the full financial picture of adoption.

Build a strong support system

Finding the right vet and establishing a good rapport with them can do wonders for your pet. Your vet will be able to provide valuable information about their specific illness and how to effectively deal with it, and will even help you face the most difficult aspect: end-of-life care. “When you’re dealing with a chronic illness, your vet should be your guide through this,” Schnitker says. “We’re on their side. They should view us as their partner in this, and establish a good relationship and realize we’re there to help them through the whole process.” There’s also a large online community of pet owners going through the same thing; connecting with them can help shoulder some of the emotional burden, and provide a safe space to share experiences, get advice, and just talk.

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Set up your home 

You want your beloved companion to feel comfortable in their new environment. Setting up soft spaces around the house that support their bodies will encourage them to get much-needed rest wherever they are. Pets who are used to being more active should still be able to do certain activities -- they’ll just need you to take precautions for them. “Cats want to climb, and if they want to climb on the fridge, they could hurt themselves,” Schnitker says. “So make sure they have an accessible cat tree so they can get up safely.” For pets with issues like renal failure, you’ll need to set up a few places for them to go to the bathroom so that they never have to travel too far, since this type of illness can also sometimes come with mobility issues. Solutions like pet grass, astroturf, and potty pads will make things infinitely easier for both dogs and cats with renal issues.

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Keep them well hydrated

Keeping your pet well hydrated is essential during an illness, and an easy way to do that is to keep water bowls around the house for quick access. Another option might include subcutaneous fluid injections. “For kidney failure and other conditions, a vet may prescribe and teach you to give fluids underneath the skin with a fluid bag and needle,” Schnitker says. While this might seem scary at first, rest assured that your pet will not only feel better, but also experience minimal to no pain during the process. Your vet will show you how to “tent” your pet’s skin on the scruff to then administer the saline fluid. At home, find a place where you can hang the fluid bag high (elevation is key here) and set up a cozy spot beneath it so your pet can feel comfortable and safe during the process. You can also give them a treat during the procedure so that they will associate it with positivity.

Customize their nutrition

Schnitker loves Hill’s Prescription Diet blends for her patients with special needs since these solutions meet very specific nutritional needs. Recipes vary, but they include things like powerful antioxidants, unique fibers, fruits and vegetables, and varied proteins. “Usually [pet food] is so individualized, and that’s why Hill’s has so many varieties; it depends on what the pet needs,” she says. If your pet exhibits confusing symptoms, start the conversation with your vet. They can help you determine which Hill’s nutritional option best suits their needs.

With a combination of the right support from your vet and a network of pet parents in the same boat, knowledge about how to keep your pet well cared for, and the right nutrition, your best friend will live their best life no matter what health challenges they may face. Here’s to many more good times ahead.