Peggy Sue was thrown out of a car window, covered with cigarette burns,” recalls Lisa Ruoppolo of Hope Alliance, Inc.
The cat was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and “very bad anxiety.” So she’s on medication for that as well as for high blood pressure.
Another cat, Peyton, has only 2 legs. Natalya is blind.
Another cat has irritable bowel disease, and yet another has intestinal cancer. These are just a few of the special needs cats that Ruoppolo cares for at her rescue in Killingworth, Connecticut.
In the beginning, she explains, the group’s focus was simply on rescue and placement. Then Ruoppolo and a friend came across “a really horrific situation in a mobile home” in Branford, Connecticut. Most of the cats were “a combination of physical special needs and emotional special needs.”
Bottom line? They weren’t the kind of cats who get adopted out easily.
Special Needs Cats
Nobody ever said these cats weren’t work.
“The best thing I could equate it to is people with special needs children,” says Ruoppolo. “When you have special needs children, you never know what you’re going to wake up to.”
It usually takes the director 3 hours in the morning to clean, feed and medicate her charges.
Cat beds don’t work for many of these cats, given their various health issues, so Ruoppolo uses pillows, which are lower, flatter and easier for the cats to get on and off of.
For easier cleaning, the pillows are encased in zippered plastic bags and covered with soft material. “You have to make it accommodating,” she explains. “When some of them have accidents, they get embarrassed. I tell them, ‘It’s all right’ — it comes with what I do.”
If you have a special needs cat, learn all you can about their particular condition.
“When my elderly cat became diabetic a few years ago, I became an expert of feline diabetes,” says Andee Bingham, a writer who is active in cat rescue and advocacy. “I completely immersed myself in it, knowing that everything I learned would help make her life easier.”
Doing that has also helped her “with other diabetic cats I’ve met since,” she says.
Both Emotional and Physical Issues
When we think of cats with special needs, we think of:
- Blind and/or deaf cats
- Cats who are born with inverted legs or who, like Peyton, are actually missing legs
- Cats who have tested positive for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
But the term “special needs” also covers cats who are emotionally scarred.
“A special needs cat may come with some emotional issues, depending on how long she has had special needs, was in a shelter or rescue, and how well she has adapted to her challenge,” says Rita Reimers, a cat behaviorist who is “mom to a 3-legged mischievous kitty named Smoochie.”
In some ways, these emotionally scarred cats are the ones who present the greatest challenge to their caregivers.
My own cat Scrabble was born with a deformed hind foot, but that’s overshadowed by her severe abandonment issues. It has taken her 7 years to trust me enough to let me pet and comb her.
“It’s Part of the Package”
Shelter volunteers don’t always have time to deal with special needs cats.
Take Peggy Sue, for instance. Her behavior “can change in a moment,” says Ruoppolo. Something will trigger her PTSD, and she’ll stop using the litter box or act up with the other cats or even with Ruoppolo herself.
But then the spell passes, and Peggy Sue goes back to business as usual.
“It’s not something everybody wants to deal with. But it’s part of the package,” Ruoppolo says.
Esmeralda, another one of the Hope Alliance cats, arrived with almost all of her fur pulled out. “She had the most severe OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder]. She would jump off the bed and on the bed I don’t know how many times in 5 minutes. She would only go to the bathroom in the sink,” Ruoppolo says.
Finding Their Essence of Special Needs Cats
Precious Bane is a classic novel about Prue Sarn, a young woman with a cleft palate. But she has an inner beauty that shines through despite — or maybe because of — it.
Cats with special needs are a lot like Prue. Just ask Josh Norem.
The San Francisco-based “Furrtographer” has been cared for a number of blind cats over the past decade. And he has been shooting pro bono photos of cats with special needs for various shelters and rescue groups during that time.
As he puts it, he is “just trying to capture their beauty and their essence.”
“I hope when someone looks at a photo I’ve taken, they see a beautiful animal instead of just focusing on a particular injury or disability,” Norem says.
Fortunately, there are enough people who see these cats this way, people who are willing to change diapers for cats with urinary issues or try to get a handle on the trauma that some of these animals have endured.
“What could be better than giving a loving home to a cat who has been overlooked merely because she is a little different?” says Reimers.
Check out Joe and Lauren DiPaolo’s loving clowder of cats:
An Adopted Family
On Instagram, you can follow the story of a young couple, Joe and Lauren DiPaolo, who make a point of adopting special needs cats, who include:
- Little, who has a brain condition that affects his motor skills
- Mika, who lost her eyes to an infection
- Mac, who was born with a cleft palate and heart issues
- Leela, who is physically disabled and missing an eye
They recently added a pair of kittens to the mix:
- Yoyo, who is missing both eyes
- Tank, a feral kitten with a rare heart condition
Tank was vicious “until he started to learn what love feels like,” say the DiPaolos. Watching their videos and scrolling through their photos, you get to see all these cats play together just like any other cats.
Perhaps Ruoppolo puts it best when it comes to these lovely cats: “There is no general normal. It’s all individual. Normal is a setting on a washing machine.”