Not all pets are perfect. Some have physical limitations and disabilities. They may be blind, or deaf, or both. They can be born this way or develop the issues as they grow. For some, it is just a matter of getting older.
They don’t deserve to be tossed aside because they aren’t perfect or young. They aren’t worthless; all they need is a little help. With help, they can go on to live full, happy, long lives. These animals can come from someone’s backyard, a breeder, or a farmer. They can also come from animal shelters or classified ads. They can be inexpensive and even sometimes free. Or they simply show up on your doorstep!
Sadly, shelter dogs and cats are plentiful. Purebred, registered breeds of all ages can be found in almost any animal shelter. If you are looking for a specific breed, know your breed standards and visit an animal shelter. If there are dogs or cats that fit within the criteria, it would be worth a try! With mixed breeds, look for qualities that you want in a pet. Learn as much as you can about their health and behavior history. Keep in mind that the shelter staff only have limited knowledge, either from the people who surrendered the animal, or what they have learned through evaluations and their own experience. If you don’t want to see all the animals, ask for a specific breed or profile that you are looking for.
People often say that it is hard to go into animal shelters, and it is. But it could be an opportunity to give an unwanted animal a chance at life.
Even with information from the shelter, you will no doubt learn more once you bring an animal home. The animal-shelter environment is stressful to animals and they may react differently there than they normally would. Be prepared to give the animal some time to adjust and a private area away from your other animals. This can serve as a quarantine time that is to the benefit of everyone. It will also give the new animal time to get familiar with its new surroundings. They have just been through a traumatic experience and moving to a new home is another stressor. And for some, just one more move.
Years ago we adopted a kitty from an animal shelter; she had been picked up as a stray. In the shelter, this kitty got sick with an upper respiratory infection. As she was being carried back to be euthanized, she reached her paw out and touched another staff member. This lady decided to take the kitty home and let her get healthier so that she could be adopted.
When we saw Amber, she was dangling her paws out of the steel bars on her cage. When we brought her home, it was just another day for her, or so it seemed. She took it in stride and acted tough. The very next day we took her to the vet for a checkup. She fought getting in the crate and didn’t like the visit to the veterinarian’s office. When I brought her home, she flew out of the crate, but then she looked around and realized that she had come back to a familiar place and I saw her whole body relax. From that moment, she began to settle down and be a happy kitty.
At eleven years old, she developed cancer. We did all that we could for her without submitting her to invasive tests and treatments. It was a difficult process but she was strong and stayed as happy as she could. We worked closely with our vet; as her owners, it was up to us to do what was best for her. She died peacefully at home and in our arms. This is part of the whole life process.
Old and sick animals end up in animal shelters or abandoned because people don’t want to watch them get old or be sick. They are neglected when they need help the most. They are our responsibility. It may be hard for us, but it matters to them.
Most people are familiar with shelter cats and dogs, but farm animals can have these issues as well. Oftentimes, we don’t hear about them because if they aren’t healthy and hardy, they don’t get a chance at a new life. Cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, and chickens are livestock but they have feelings and show emotions just like a dog or a cat can.
In 2009, I delved into chicken keeping. At four months old, one of my young female chickens (pullets), began having issues with her eyesight. The vet didn’t really know what was causing it or what could be done; neither did most of the experienced people that I talked to. Often, chickens with a sickness of any kind would be culled. Because her health was good otherwise, I let her live and she did just fine. Her vision loss was gradual, so she knew her surroundings and was comfortable in her environment and her flock. By two years old, she was completely blind. I added new birds to the flock that she didn’t know or trust, so she was happier in a pen of her own; she needed a separate space to ensure her safety because the original hens were good to her but the new hens may have pecked her. Again, she adapted and is thriving.
In a protected area, she can have free-range time with everyone else. She scratches around for grit and grass, takes dust baths, and lounges in the sunshine. The rest of the flock comes by to be near her and visit, and she is a happy bird!
Last year, I found an ad on Craigslist for two blind chickens—a rooster and hen pair. They both have limited vision but are not blind. The original owner had gotten them as chicks and had other roosters that had begun picking on these two.
The rooster had never crowed, and she didn’t think he would. It turned out that he wasn’t crowing because he didn’t want to draw attention to his hen or himself. When he came to our farm, where there were no other roosters and he knew they were safe, he learned to crow. Now, he and the hen function in the flock perfectly. He can still do his job—we had a chick hatch this Spring. He is as watchful as he can be, but he is extra sensitive to sounds and will warn his girls if he hears something strange.
Recently, there was another ad on our local Craigslist for a lonely, blind chicken. This one is completely blind. Found starving and pecked nearly to death, they rescued and brought her back to health, but she was their only chicken. Her rescuer wanted a good home for her where she could have chicken company again and be safe. I had the set up and figured she would fit right in! She did need some extra help with eating and drinking. Like my first blind hen, the new one showed frustration when she was hungry and couldn’t find or grab the food. The new chicken was trying to eat from a typical chicken feeder and getting flustered because the surface area was too small. I switched her to an open container and she liked that and was able to eat.
My experience with Stevie taught me that the plastic bowls that mount to pet crate doors are perfect for these birds. Because of his limited vision and his big comb and wattles, he didn’t like the chicken fount. I tried a couple of things before I found he loved the plastic bowls. And they are working perfectly for the new girl. Once she figured them out, she was able to drink and eat independently. Which makes her a happy girl.
Since she is completely blind, she will be able to be in with my other blind hen. I will let them get used to each other by being near one another before I put them together. With these chickens, when introducing them to a new space, I let them experience the boundaries on their own. They will wander and figure it out. If the space is larger, they will venture more and more as they feel comfortable. I spend time in the area with them at first. When they need to feel safe, they often climb onto my shoes. Once reassured, they will begin wandering again.
For their food, I will tap at the feed as a mother hen would for a chick. They know the noise and will move toward the sound and start pecking around. The blind birds tend to peck erratically until they hit the right spot but once they are comfortable, they eat normally. Drinking is the same: I just splash the water around so that they can hear what it is and they come to the sound. Once their area is established, I leave everything in the same position so they know right where it is. They even have short blocks that they like to climb and perch on. They are all happy and thriving doing what all the other chickens get to do.
In recent years, chickens have begun showing up at animal shelters. In some areas, you can adopt chickens that have come from a commercial egg factory. The factory birds have never felt sunlight or stood on the earth. A backyard flock can consist of just a couple of birds, but like any other animal, they are a responsibility and commitment.
They don’t lay eggs forever. A young chicken starts to lay eggs around six months old. Their peak production is at about a year old. After that, the production starts to decline. I have four year-old hens that still lay every day, some every other day or so. People have to decide what they will do with the aging, less productive hens. My ladies will live out their lives on the farm, eggs or no eggs. I have added new girls to the flock and that is a process, too. The term “pecking order” really is just that. Chickens are very social and they have a complex structure within the flock. They form bonds and friendships; each chicken has its place.
As some of my hens get older, I see them slowing down, just like other aging animals. Their feet and legs can get stiff and they can’t jump from their perches like they used to. Recently, I have made some new accommodations for this. With the addition of the new blind hen, I needed to change the coop. I had one mini-coop and added another one. It is an enclosed area inside the coop where the blind birds can be safe and have their own space to move around. For the older ladies, I put in blocks and ramps so that they can walk or hop up and down rather than jumping. It takes some extra planning and effort, but it is worth it, especially for the critters.
Every animal will get old. Even the perfect ones. I used to be one who didn’t want to go into an animal shelter and see all the sad animals, but one day I did. The thing that bothered me the most was seeing the old dogs. At the time our male German Shepherd was getting older and his muzzle was turning gray; I saw dogs just like that in the shelter. I thought of how faithfully our dog had served our family for so many years. The shelter dogs were the same, only their families were gone.
As our dogs get older, we adjust their diets. They are less active, so they get less food to keep them at a healthy weight. We make sure that they aren’t jumping as often or as high. Be careful when you throw sticks and balls for them so that they don’t strain themselves—they don’t always act old! We give them beds that are little higher off the ground so that it is easier for them to get up and down. The same goes for cats. Watch the heights and distances that they are jumping. They too need diets adjusted—from kibble to soft food—as well as the amounts. As with any dietary change, do it gradually and watch them closely.
Livestock ages as well; my horse, Scooper, is 28 years old. Horses have special dental needs; their teeth grow all of their lives. Because of this, they need to have them “floated” by a veterinarian. They sedate the horse and put on a special halter that holds its mouth open. Then the vet uses a rasp to file down edges of the teeth that have developed sharp points or have uneven wear. With sedation, the vvet can do a much better job and it is easier on the horse and his mouth. As they age, their teeth still grow, but much more slowly.
Horses also lose teeth as they get older. When they lose teeth or wear them down, it affects their ability to eat. My horse is at that point now. He doesn’t have many teeth left so he is on a soft diet. His pelleted food has everything that he needs. It is complete nutrition, like Ensure is for people. He can still nibble at hay when he wants, but can’t eat it like he used to.
The last couple of years, he has been slowing down physically, as well. In the wintertime, we can get a lot of snow. We will take the snowblower and clear paths for him so that it is easy for him to walk. We also plow an open area so he can get exercise and roll around. As his vision and hearing capacity diminish, I make sure his pathways are clear of any obstacles. I also leave things so he knows where they are; his water trough stays in the same location as does his fence line, that way he feels safe and secure.
Going to the animal shelter is an experience, as is rescuing any animal. It takes character and some extra effort, but the rewards are greater than can be imagined. And for the animal, it really does make a difference. For the ones that don’t have a long life left, what a gift for them to have a home where they can live happily and die with dignity. My special-needs pets teach me much about life in how they live and die; every day is a valuable gift, for them and for us!