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5 Changes To Make When Caring For A Special-Needs Pet

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Bronwyn Gruet/The Dodo

The bond we have with our pets is a powerful one, and because of that, receiving news that they’ll now need some extra-special care can be a tough pill to swallow. To help you make sure you can give your special-needs pet the comfortable life you want for them, we spoke to Dr. Amanda Schnitker, medical director at Companion Animal Hospital River North in Chicago, about how to reconsider your daily routine in light of your pet’s new health needs.


Subtle changes in your pet’s behavior may be the motivation for booking a vet appointment. We all hope for easily-diagnosed problems that can be quickly treated with medication. But a professional diagnosis of more serious medical needs calls for a full-on game change. “Our pets are living with cancer a lot longer than they used to,” Schnitker says. “The most common thing we have to deal with [in] an older cat is kidney disease.” Other common chronic pet illnesses include joint disease and arthritis.

Regardless of the diagnosis, medication is probably in the picture, and that means being responsible for making sure your pet takes their meds. A dry-erase board with a medication schedule will help pet parents adjust to the new routine -- especially in a multi-parent household. You may even want to keep notes in a journal to catalogue your pet’s reactions to new drugs.

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Your pet’s new medication may bring problems with digestion or elimination, so make sure there are plenty of options for your pet to relieve themselves. “Look at your routine and make sure access to void [is available], whether in a litter box or potty pad or outside,” Schnitker suggests.

You might consider using barriers to keep your pet in carpetless areas of the home that are easy to clean until everyone’s used to the new normal. When her dog started having continence issues, Schnitker says, she used baby gates to keep certain rooms off limits when they weren’t home. “He can only be in that room if he’s with us,” she says, “so he doesn’t have an accident on something he never would have when he was little.”


For the most part, keep your pet on their usual exercise routine after a medical diagnosis. If they can’t run anymore, choose a long walk. If a Hail Mary throw is too much for them to retrieve because of joint pain or vision loss, keep your toss abbreviated (even if this just means across the living room). Pets will guide you by limiting their own participation to accommodate their pain or energy levels. 

If your pet’s chronic condition is causing pain that severely limits their movement, talk to your vet. “I arm my pet parents with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication,” Schnitker says, adding that she recommends physical therapy or swimming in extreme cases to help keep pets mobile for as long as possible.

Changes in your pet’s interests that you might have attributed to mood before can also be indicators of health issues, so just keep an eye out. For example, if your dog’s obsession with tug-of-war stops, it could be an indication of dental or gum issues. If your kitties can no longer make it to the top of their beloved cat trees because of spinal issues, add wooden blocks to transform their jumps into gentle climbs.

Bronwyn Gruet/The Dodo


Good food is a central part of staying healthy for everyone, including pets. Thinking about not only what your pet is eating but how they’re eating it are two main concerns for parents of special-needs animals. 

First things first: food. Schnitker recommends Hill’s brand pet food for its dialed-in nutrients. Hill’s food supports everyday vitality, and while the recipes vary, they include things like powerful antioxidants, unique fibers, fruits and vegetables, and varied proteins. “When you have a chronic illness, it’s important to keep up that weight,” she says. “Making sure they’re consuming enough of a [recommended food] is important.”

Schnitkner suggests Hill’s Science Diet brand as a good starting place, but work with your vet to find the right formula for you. Hill’s has it all: low-calorie formulas, high-calorie formulas, joint-focused formulas, products to accommodate food sensitivities, and many more. 

Once you and your vet have chosen the right food, look at their eating habits. If your furry friend’s tendency to inhale food like an adorable vacuum is causing tummy trouble, switch it up. Schntiker recommends puzzle feeders, which have mini puzzles for your pet to solve in order to get their food. Not only will they help keep your pet from overeating, but they’re great for a little dinnertime entertainment.


If you’re still reading this article, it’s likely that you have a special-needs pet. You aren’t alone! Take time to connect with friends and family members who have pets in a similar situation. Seek out web forums of other people whose pets are dealing with the same conditions as yours. 

Most importantly: keep a journal. Recording the events of good and bad days will not only help you remember to tell important details to your vet, but it will likely remind you of all the great times you still have with your pet. Remembering these shared moments will help keep you balanced, even on the wobbliest of days.