Every dog that I work with teaches me. Each leaves me different than how they found me. Winston taught me a little more and left me a little bit more changed than the rest. Adopting a special needs dog isn’t for everyone, but for me, it was an invaluable experience I’m deeply grateful for.

Winton’s confidence, zest for life, and pure enthusiasm continue to inspire me, long after he is gone. I am lucky to have known him and had the privilege of being his human.

What’s it Like Adopting a Special Needs Dog?

Adopting a special needs dog is like adopting any dog: you get to know each other and share life together. It’s just that when you adopt a special needs dog, you may get to know each other in some different ways. Special needs dogs need special help, which creates opportunities for a special bond.

What Makes a Dog Special Needs?

A dog can be special needs for a wide range of reasons. Dogs with mental, physical, and behavioral disabilities are considered special needs. Dogs who are blind, deaf, paralyzed, mentally impaired, mobility challenged, or suffer extreme separation anxiety, aggression, or other serious, ongoing behavioral concern are special needs dogs.

My Disabled Dog Adoption Story

When I met Winston, the veterinarian was lifting him out of the hyperbaric chamber in the integrative medicine department, where I was a client service liaison. I was busy giving her a report on which clients could wait and which needed discharge papers NOW, but I trailed off when I saw him.

He was damp to eliminate static electricity and wrapped in a towel. His huge liquid eyes darted around under expressive eyebrows, framed by long soft ears. There are few things cuter in this world than a nine-month-old King Charles Cavalier. I knew his condition, so when the vet set him on the ground, I expected a pitiful creature to lie immobile and helpless on the tile.

Instead, I saw a weird red bullet of a dog shoot off across the floor, scooting with his hind legs as he pulled powerfully with his front. The vet had to run to chase him down as he raced toward another dog who was hooked up to electro-acupuncture.

Winston became paralyzed in his hindquarters at nine months, almost certainly due to a congenital defect that made his discs slip during normal play while he and his brother were with a petsitter. He was brought into UF Small Animal Hospital, where the neurology department performed an MRI, among other tests, and determined that he had almost no probability of recovery and that his paralysis may continue to worsen.

His owners, agonizing over the sudden injury of their dog while they were away, decided to wake him from anesthesia and do intensive therapy with hyperbaric chamber, acupuncure, and an array of experimental therapies. However, his condition wasn’t improving, the bills were racking up, and they didn’t want to keep a paralyzed dog.

The call went out for anyone willing to take Winston on… and the clock was ticking.

I think he had me from the first time I saw him. That’s good, because I didn’t have long to decide. I went from having almost no experience with handicapped dogs to being responsible for changing his diaper, preventing him from damaging his dragging legs, and teaching him to walk in a wheelchair, in a matter of days.

Thankfully, I had the integrative and neurology teams at UF SAH to help. I made mistakes, but Winston and I learned from each other, and we soon entered a routine we’d maintain for years to come.

If you’ve recently adopted a special needs dogs you’ve probably already had your “Oh my what have I done?” moment. If you’re thinking of adopting a special needs dog, I guarentee you you’ll have that moment too.

Mine came in the middle of the night when I realized he’d gotten his diaper off in the bed with me. *sigh*

It’s ok. Rescuing isn’t about having no doubts. It’s about being your best for the unique, loving creature who’s entered your life.

Types of Handicapped Dogs

A mentally disabled dog will experience very different challenges than paralyzed dogs, who will have concerns that differ from blind or deaf dogs. There are lots of great communities and rescues that can help you learn about the needs of dogs with various disabilities. However, here’s a run down of disabled dogs for adoption you’re likely to encounter.

Paralyzed Dog Rescue

Winston suffered from a Fibrocartilagenous Embolism that left him with almost no mobility in his hind end. FCE occurs when a small piece of fibrous cartilage from an intervertebral disc dislodges and blocks a blood vessel in the spinal cord. This sudden disruption of blood flow can lead to paralysis. However, there are a variety of reasons dogs may become paralyzed:

  1. Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD): The discs between the vertebrae in the spine degenerate or herniate, causing compression of the spinal cord. IVDD is most common in dogs with long backs and short legs, like Dachshunds. It can lead to partial or complete paralysis.
  2. Degenerative Myelopathy: This is a progressive neurological disease that primarily affects certain breeds, such as German Shepherds and Rough Collies. It leads to the degeneration of the spinal cord, resulting in gradual loss of coordination and eventual paralysis of the hind limbs.
  3. Tumors: Spinal tumors can cause compression or damage to the spinal cord, leading to paralysis. These tumors can be cancerous or they may not be.
  4. Infections or Inflammation: Infections like meningitis or inflammatory conditions such as myelitis can cause inflammation of the spinal cord, leading to paralysis.
  5. Tick Paralysis: Certain species of ticks produce a toxin that can cause paralysis in dogs. The paralysis typically starts in the hind legs and moves forward.
  6. Autoimmune Disorders: Conditions like autoimmune polyradiculoneuritis (APN) can cause paralysis in dogs. APN occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the nerves, leading to weakness and paralysis.

Here are a few of the things that are most important when it comes to caring for a paralyzed dog:

Diaper Changes and/or bladder expression

Winston never needed his bladder expressed. He fully expressed it himself and was able to defecate without assistance, either. That meant that all I had to do was change his diaper. However, MANY paralyzed dogs require bladder expression.

Many paralyzed dogs can’t empty their bladder on their own or may have difficulty fully emptying it. This can lead to urinary tract infections and bladder distension.

By gently applying pressure to the dog’s lower abdomen, you can manually expel urine from the bladder. This is much easier in some dogs than in others. Your vet or vet tech can work with you to master the technique. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes a regular part of your routine.

Wound Management

Winston wouldn’t be slowed down by his disability, which mean I had to protect his legs and feet from his enthusiasm. Other paralyzed dogs struggle to lie in any but one position, resulting in bedsores. Constant exposure to urine or feces can cause skin irritation (diaper rash) and infections under the diaper.

Your paralyzed rescue dog will likely be prone to wounds of one kind or another. Keeping the wound clean, dry, and open to air as much as possible is essential. Winston wore bandages, long pants, and shoes to protect him from getting injuries.

When he inevitably got them anyways, Epsom salt baths and plenty of fresh air always did the trick. It’s hard to give an incontinent dog enough naked time, but I found it essential to make sure Winston spent time every day out of his diapers and bandages. Needless to say, he had a bath after.

Blind Dog Rescue

Blind dogs are all too often passed over at shelters or given up as puppies once their owners realize they’re blind. However, blind dogs can be amazing pets.

The Blind Dog Rescue Alliance is an amazing resource for blind dog rescue and for anyone living with a blind dog. Since their formation in 2009, they’ve saved over 800 visually impaired dogs. They not only pull blind dogs from shelters, but they also provide assistance to the owners of blind dogs and educate the public. Here are some of the tips they provide.

Living with a blind dog depends on creating predictability for them. Since dogs have superb hearing and smell, you can rely on those cues. Jingly bells on doors, your dog, and your family let your dog know where everyone, help you find your dog, and let your dog know where doors are and when they open.

Scented oils applied to things your dog may run into are a great way to avoid bumps. Different scents in different areas of the house can clue your dog into where they are.

If you’re the type of person who loves to rearrange furniture, stop it. Blind dogs rely on mapping their environment so they can navigate confidently, even without vision.

Teach your dog commands to help them navigate, like “step up” and “stop!”. If you are able to have another dog, a sighted companion can help a blind dog out a lot.

Deaf Dog Rescue

When I was given the opportunity to write a book about my experiences with Winston and about taking care of a disabled dog in general, I jumped on the opportunity.

Find my book, “Owning a Owning a Paralyzed Dog – The Complete Care Guide: Helping Your Disabled Dog Live Their Life to the Fullest” on Amazon. or wherever books are sold.

Read more about my time with Winston and see videos below.

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