Living with Pride: Pets with Disabilities


Photo by Kris Getzie of Dog is Art Photography

Every day that I don’t wreck my dog is a gift. When I think of how much responsibility is in my hands, it’s overwhelming.  Grendel, my dog, is my dependent and his care is solely up to me.  It’s a wonder both of us continue to thrive as we do.

At least six times a day, we face certain peril in the concrete and steel stairwells that we’re required to use in my loft building.  No dogs are allowed in the elevator. Three times down and three times up is our minimum.  If we meet a dog we don’t like (Grendel hates black dogs and pugs…I don’t know why), it’s a cage-match.  If he plummets down the stairs too quickly, I fear for his toes or his legs or his belly and how they might get caught or scraped on the unforgiving steps, being he’s a low-riding dog.  I try to mitigate the risks.  I make sure to take us through as many doors with windows as possible, so nobody unknowingly opens a fire door into his wee face.  I strive to make sure that there are no other dogs in the stairwell when I take him up or down so that no tempers flare wildly out of control. And, I try to slow down the little juggernaut as he excitedly makes his way out to sunshine and freedom as our building exits onto a very busy St. Paul thoroughfare.

He loves being outside.  The outdoors is a cornucopia of things for him to sniff.  The world is his oyster, and he wants to mark it as his territory.  Slowly.  He goes in hyperspeed to get outside and then everything slows to a sputtering stop.

Contrary to Grendel’s enthusiasm, I get outside and see all the branches that can poke his ice-blue eyes out.  I fear the guy who always drives too fast while talking on his phone in the parking lot.  I stiffen up as I see the dog owners who break the rules and let their dogs off-leash, worried that they’ll approach us and all hell will break loose.

You know that book the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook?  I’m all over that, except without the Survival Handbook part.  I pretty much just see the worst-case scenarios.  Why?  Because he’s my guy.  I don’t want harm to come to him.  Injury and illness might be inevitable to some extent, but I want to do all in my power to avoid them, for Grendel’s sake.  I can’t watch the end of Marley & Me, let alone imagine a time without this guy.  To think of him in pain is simply unacceptable.

Though, it’s entirely possible.

Photo by Kris Getzie of Dog is Art Photography

As I started researching the topic of pets with disabilities for this issue, I had catastrophes in mind.  A dog that loses a leg because of a car accident, a cat that was attacked by a dog, a pug that has a bad eye.  Surely, the gauntlet we run every day and emerge from unscathed has claimed many victims…just not us.

I asked some of the veterinarians around the Metro Area what some of the common disabilities are for pets; one response was that of surprise: We don’t see many pets with disabilities as, often, they’re put down. That was a chilling—but somewhat understandable—reaction.  When our pets’ health is at risk, we feel helpless and don’t know our own capacity for handling the challenges of aging or ailing animals.

As the answers started coming in from veterinarians, it became clear that more common disabilities are not from running the gauntlet of worst-case scenarios, but from just plain aging.  Arthritis is common as can be intervertebral disk disease and other musculoskeletal problems.  There are meds and supplements to be taken per the veterinarian’s orders, but there are also other holistic and adaptive techniques to handle health problems.

As far as advice is concerned, the vets were very helpful:


“Appropriate diagnostic tests to fully understand the cause and extent of the disability is important. Once we have a clear understanding of what is going on with the pet, we can offer the best advice for management.  Pain control is key.  We have so many great medications available for pets now, that pets don’t have to suffer.  We also offer acupuncture and rehabilitation therapy for pets.”  –Dr. Teresa Hershey, CCRT, CVMA


“Having a geriatric or otherwise-challenged companion animal adjusted by a properly qualified animal chiropractor can do wonders for them.  Most often, owners report they see a little spark return to their friend’s eye and a restoration of some level of function after the initial visit.  Supporting greater comfort with chiropractic care may assist healing, decrease anxiety and help the animal deal with whatever physical challenges they may be facing.”  –Annie Seefeldt, DC, CVSMT


“When a pet becomes disabled, it is important to educate the pet’s guardian as to what to expect and how to best manage discomfort and life quality. There are also support groups online, including, and”  –Heather Douglas, DVM, MBA, CVA


“The main goal is to keep your pet comfortable and content.  This usually involves medical treatment as well as practical, common-sense changes that can make things easier for your pet.  One of the most important things owners can do to help with arthritis is to keep their pet at a healthy weight.  Extra weight puts unnecessary strain on already painful joints. Exercise is beneficial to pets with arthritis.  It helps to keep the joints mobile, and also helps to keep the weight in check. Some other hints for around the house:  Ramps or stairs can be used to curtail jumping, but still allow pets to access beds, couches and vehicles.  Dishes should be elevated to reduce neck strain.  Harnesses can also help reduce neck strain during walks. Non-slip runners are helpful on hardwood or tile floors.  Cats will appreciate litter boxes placed in areas that are easy to access, not in the far corner of the basement.”  –Dan Anderson, DVM


“Trauma is always a concern. Trauma can lead to injuries that may result in limb amputation or paralysis of the legs. There are ways to get pets back up and walking again if they become paralyzed. is one company that specializes in wheels for dogs. One good thing about dogs and cats is that they can get around pretty well on just 3 legs.  Other disabilities that pets may develop are things such as blindness or deafness. Most pets can get along pretty well after becoming blind or deaf. Some of them actually develop pretty close relationships with other dogs or cats to help notify them or help them get around.  I also like to remind people that as pets age it is a good idea to get them a little more padding in their bedding. Their muscles atrophy as they age and provide less ‘padding’ on their joints.” — Dr. Mary Philippson, B.S., DVM


I joke with Grendel, sometimes, that he’s only 42 to my 35…we should both be a little more chipper and active.  But, I’m not that far off.  Even when he’s 77 to my 40, it’s my job to keep him as comfortable and active as he’ll allow.  The weight needs to be managed as much as catastrophes need to be avoided.  As short as he is, I can imagine a loft full of ramps and steps as he ages.  Hopefully, that’ll be the extent of any adaptation that will be required.

Now, as we turn in for a good night’s sleep, I hope I won’t roll over and smother him in the night, just like why new parents aren’t supposed to co-sleep with their babies.  Then again, he’s 48 pounds and carries it all in his torso, keeping his short legs curled in front of him like a beetle.  I’d have to roll over really hard to accomplish anything damaging…but I won’t rule it out.  Vigilance is key.


For products recommended by these veterinary professionals, see the Pet Product Guide.

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