Recently, we sat down to interview our feline team manager, Sarah Ashe, about special needs within the cat population. Sarah has been “herding cats” for us for over 10 years. Sarah leads a team of 15 direct animal care technicians at the ARLGP who care for over 2,900 cats per year at our facility.
What would you classify as a “special needs” animal?
I would classify this as any animal that needs a special something. The first thing that comes to mind is a medical need, but we also have behavioral cats I would classify as special needs. For example, very shy or independent cats, cats that require additional enrichment, senior animals are always a special need to some degree, as well as kittens. Senior cats need closer monitoring to ensure that they are healthy and mentally stimulated in this environment. This same idea also applies to kittens; both groups can be fragile if not closely monitored.
How has the treatment for certain kinds of special needs changed?
The treatment and care of special needs animals has changed based on the community’s willingness to adopt them. We are able to treat more issues if we have a safety net of them being adopted afterwards. With more adopters willing to welcome animals with medical and behavioral special needs into their homes, we are able to provide more services to higher numbers of animals. We have found that we can treat many issues as long as there is a welcoming adopter. For example, we have become a pioneer for adopting cats with FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, a lentivirus that affects cats worldwide). As a result we have become a safety net for other shelters when they have cats testing positive for FIV. This was only made possible thanks to community support for these amazing cats. With strong adoptions we also have the ability to treat things that others may find challenging like ringworm. Although this can be a lengthy process to treat, we are committed to treatment because the outcome for the animal is fantastic.
What are the biggest challenges for the shelter when dealing with special needs animals?
Time and management of care is the biggest challenge. Caring for numerous special needs animals at once is a huge drain on staff time, especially during our peak season when we are inundated with cats. We have a strong commitment to providing a top-notch level of care, so when we have many with special needs at one time, it can be difficult to manage.
What would you like people to know about caring for these animals?
Caring for an animal with special needs is not always financially burdensome. Many of the animals we place with medical special needs are fairly inexpensive to deal with. For example, the medication for cats with hyperthyroidism is relatively inexpensive. We place a lot of cats with Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD), and many of these cats are managed with enrichment, environmental change and canned food only. These to me are always animals that really need you (the adopter). Often they have been through a lot and many of our medical special needs come to us with no diagnosis until they get here. So often they have been living with their medical issue untreated. The cats with behavioral special needs usually just need to get out of the shelter. For many cats the shelter is stressful (even though we do everything we can to try and offset that). So by adopting and removing the animal from busy shelter life, it can help them so much. We are lucky to have a shelter that is busy with foot traffic, but sometimes that is hard on the cats.
How has the ARLGP led in the treatment philosophy for special needs animals?
We have been able to lead the way with the treatment and care of special needs animals thanks to the community support through adoption. We absolutely could not help so many animals without folks adopting them. The more willing the community is to adopt a 16-year-old cat, a shy cat, or a cat with medical needs, the more we are able to work with their condition. We have been able to treat and care for so many various issues thanks to the public and their open arms for adoption. We also try to use a variety of things to help manage special needs; we incorporate holistic medicine, traditional medicine, enrichment, Bach flower essences, and outside time in nice weather. With cats we also try to be incredibly in-tuned to what their needs are. Many cats are frightened at the shelter so we try to think about that with everything we do. For example, we make sure there is soft music, we provide places for them to hide, we try to keep our human volume down, we use rescue remedy in the water. We really try to make sure that the cats have an excellent experience here. We try to be as close to a four-star cat resort as we can get!
Do you see other shelters with similar philosophies?
I think other shelters are certainly trying to help more special needs animals. However, I think every shelter is only able to help what the community will adopt from them. This can make things more challenging in areas of Maine where there is still so much pet overpopulation. This is why we try to help other Maine shelters (when we can) by taking some of their adoptable animals so they will have a better chance at being seen. The bottom line is- shelters want to help animals, but most are providing temporary care, at the ARLGP we refer to them as our guests. They are with us for short temporary stays. Shelters are not suitable environments for animals to permanently live. So shelters need adopters to make their work possible.
What can people do to help?
Adopt! We can help more when we have fewer animals. People can donate money to help with medical care, cat food, litter, baby food- anything we can use to defray costs, so we can help more with special medical needs. They can volunteer so that more staff time can be spent performing medical treatments, evaluations and working with the animals. They can foster, as many of our special needs animals would greatly benefit from foster homes, but we only have limited fosters that will foster adult animals. They can also make sure that their pets are spayed and neutered and spread the word on the importance of this so that shelters all over the state are not overflowing with cats during kitten season every year.
If you could ask for one thing, what would it be?
We are only as good as our adopters. If more people adopt, we can save more lives!