Peggy Sue “was thrown out of a car window, covered with cigarette burns,” Lisa Ruoppolo of Hope Alliance Inc. recalls. The cat was actually diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and “has very bad anxiety.” So she’s on medication for that as well as for high blood pressure.
Peyton has only 2 legs. Natalya is blind. Another cat has irritable bowel disease (IBD), and yet another has intestinal cancer. These are only 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.
It’s Not Easy
Nobody ever said that special needs 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 them, given their various health issues, so Ruoppolo uses pillows; they’re lower, flatter and easier for the cats to get on and off of.
The pillows are encased in zippered plastic bags and covered with soft material for easier cleaning. “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,” writes Andee Bingham. “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.”
When we think of special needs felines, we think of:
- Blind and/or deaf cats.
- Cats who are born with inverted legs or who, like Peyton, are actually missing them.
- 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,” writer Rita Reimers observes.
In some ways, these are the cats who present the greatest challenge to their caregivers. My tortie, Scrabble, was born with a deformed hind foot, but that’s overshadowed by her severe abandonment issues. It has taken her over 7 years to let me pet and comb her to trust me.
Shelter volunteers don’t always have time to deal with the Scrabbles of the world. Take Peggy Sue, for instance. Her behavior “can change in a moment”; 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. Then the spell passes, and she 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 the Essence of Special Needs Cats
Precious Bane (1924) is a novel about Prue Sarn, a young Victorian woman with a cleft palate. But she has an inner beauty that shines through despite — or maybe because of — it.
Special needs cats are a lot like Prue — just ask Josh Norem. The San Francisco-based “Furrtographer” has been owned by a number of blind cats for roughly a decade. And he has been doing pro bono photos of cats with special needs for various shelters and rescue groups during that time.
He is, as he puts it, “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.”
Fortunately, there are enough people who see special needs cats this way, people who are willing to change diapers on cats with urinary issues or try to get a handle on the trauma some of these animals have endured.
Check out Joe and Lauren’s loving clowder of cats:
An Adopted Family
You can follow the story of a young couple, Joe and Lauren, who make a point of adopting special needs felines, on Instagram. Meet their cats:
- 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 handicapped and missing an eye.
They also recently added 2 kittens to the mix: Yoyo, who is missing both eyes, and Tank, a feral with a rare heart condition. Tank was vicious “until he started to learn what love feels like.” Watching Joe and Lauren’s videos and perusing their photos, you get to see Little & Co. 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.”