January 22, 2019
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What you need to know before adopting a special needs pet

Squishy, an Alaskan husky cross from a working sled dog kennel in northern Maine, had so many problems at birth, even the medical professionals had little optimism he’d make it past puppyhood.

Today, four years later, Squishy is a happy, bouncing and energetic dog thanks to the care his owner Jessica Holmes of Portage lavishes upon him.

“You need endless dedication to raise a special needs dog like Squishy,” Dr. Christiana Yule, owner of Fort Kent Animal Hospital and the dog’s veterinarian, said. “I have never seen anyone as dedicated as Jess. I was amazed he pulled through, much less turned into such a fantastic house dog.”

Special needs pets are not right for everyone, but for those who have a place in their hearts and homes they can be a welcome addition to the family.

“Special needs animals have personality and love to give like any other animal,” Jane Siviski, marketing manager at Coastal Humane Society in Brunswick, said. “I have heard from numerous people that the special needs pets tend to know when they have been given a second chance, and they are very grateful. That’s got to make you feel good.”

Special needs pets come into people’s lives in a variety of ways.

Some are adopted with the full knowledge of the lifelong special care needed. For some, the special need is not obvious at birth and only discovered later on but the human family would not consider giving up that pet. Still others are special from Day One.

Squishy, the life of a special needs sled dog

At the animal hospital this week Squishy — always kept on a leash — was running circles around Holmes, who managed to keep herself and the dog untangled.

“This is what we do,” she laughed. “It’s second nature to me now.”

Squishy’s problems began before he was even born, according to Holmes.

He was “squished” by his littermates in utero, resulting in several birth defects, including cerebral palsy, a coned head, twisted snout, kinked tail and weak hips. He’s also deaf.

“Developmentally, he was months behind his siblings,” Holmes said. “We knew something was wrong when he was 3 days old, but I was not going to give up on him just because he was special.”

Unable to nurse thanks to his crooked snout, Holmes bottle fed the pup until he was able to eat and digest puppy kibble. From that point on he has thrived and even has his own social media page on Facebook.

“He the happiest dog you will ever meet,” she said. “One of the biggest misconceptions people have is he is unhappy, and I still get people saying I should just have him put down.”

For the love of a pig

Dawn Scovel of Etna knows all about people who don’t understand the desire to help special pets.

Eight years ago a woman called Scovel asking if she’d take in a severely injured pig, and there was no way she could refuse.

“Everyone who knows me knows I always wanted a small pig for a house pet,” Scovel said. “But this was a large, farm pig and when I got him his back leg was just hanging there, he had a prolapsed rectum, his spine had a bend I can’t even describe.”

The injuries stemmed from alleged abuse from the pig’s original owner. Scovel took him to see her mother-in-law in Connecticut who is a veterinarian who took one look at the mangled animal and said she’d do what she could but to be prepared for the worst.

“No one thought he’d live,” Scovel said.

Today, after many surgeries to repair his internal organs and bones, eight years and 630 pounds later, the pig who Scovel named Vinnie Pigarino in homage to her favorite character Vinnie Barbarino one of the “Sweathogs” from the old television show “Welcome Back Kotter,” is doing just fine.

“He has a rod in that leg, which still does not work, so it’s like a peg leg,” she said. “His pelvis is not quite lined up, but he runs around just fine.”

Even before getting Vinnie, Scovel had plenty of experience with special needs animals from her work in animal foster, something she has done for 30 years.

“I loved Vinnie from the second I saw him,” she said. “Everyone thinks I’m crazy and how could I spend money on him. The only thing I can say is, how could I not? Once he was brought to me, what was I going to do, shoot him?”

They’re all special

Not every special needs pet has needs as extreme as Squishy or Vinnie.

“We do get some animals that have more severe special needs than others,” Siviski said. “But it’s also not uncommon to see animals like cats with special dietary needs or who are diabetic. Compared to some other special needs, those are pretty easy to manage.”

The shelter presently has a blind cat named Fish Fluffington ready for adoption.

“He is wonderful and will be a great pet for the right home,” she said. “We have also placed blind and deaf dogs in the past, and we will work closely with the adopting family so they know what they are getting into.”

Two years ago Amanda Haskins and her boyfriend Simon Lavertu of Frenchville took on Occy, an Australian cattle dog who was born deaf and with epilepsy.

“When my boyfriend and I got Occy he was a puppy, and neither one of us had done the puppy thing for years,” Haskins said. “And here we are trying to train a puppy who is deaf and has neurological issues.”

Deafness and his epileptic seizures aside, Haskins said Occy is really just a normal dog.

“He knows he’s deaf,” she said. “When he’s off leash he never strays far and always keeps us in sight.”

Occy’s epilepsy is kept somewhat in control with twice daily doses of phenobarbital, but Haskins said she is prepared for the day that medication is not enough to ensure his quality of life.

“Anyone with a special needs pet needs to be prepared for the day things get worse,” she said. “They are so easy to love, but there comes a time you have to let go, and that can come sooner with dogs like Occy.”

Haskins works as a veterinary technician at the Fort Kent Animal Hospital so Yule has gotten to know him — like Squishy — pretty well. “They are really characters,” Yule said of the dogs. “And sometimes they are better than my ‘normal’ patients.”

But she agreed the special needs pets are not for everyone and a person must be willing to invest the money and time to make sure that animal has a good life.

It takes commitment

“People have to understand what kind of cost and time it will require,” Siviski said. “We go over that thoroughly with them. It does take a special kind of person who goes into a shelter and says, ‘Who needs the most help?’ And when it does happen, it’s the highlight of our work.”

Often, Siviski said, those are people who know what kind of time they have — either retirees or those who have the financial means — and who just want to adopt these special pets and give them a good life.

Sarah Murray, director of Coastal Humane Society, said often people come in, spot one of the special needs pets and fall in love.

“The special needs pets just want to be loved,” Murray said. “People do need to be aware that one problem can lead to another and be prepared for that.”

Animals with severe skin allergies may need to be placed on different special diets as the allergies worsen, diabetic animals may need daily shots over time and those with kidney issues will require increased medications.

“We will work with anyone on how to care for these pets,” Murray said. “And the adoption fee for them is always waived.”

For Holmes, the time and money was never a factor.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Holmes said. “The way Squish has grown and adapted is so amazing.”

It’s the same for Scovel.

“Vinnie is cuddly and still tries to get into my lap,” she said. “He follows me around my land and loves getting his belly rubs, beer and pasta [and] he just brings me joy all year long.”

It really does not get more special than that.

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