Puppy love: Meet the owners looking after dogs with special needs

Caring for a blind puppy or a dog with epilepsy is costly but their owners wouldn’t have it any other way

Pumba, a Chowchow from Kerry, is the nation’s cutest puppy. Pumba’s owners are Catriona and Taylor Dowling. Photograph: Alan Place

Pumba, a Chowchow from Kerry, is the nation’s cutest puppy. Pumba’s owners are Catriona and Taylor Dowling. Photograph: Alan Place

 

Everyone knows that dogs are our best friends and being loyal and true, they are the perfect companions, for people young and old. Their caring nature is also one of the reasons why many are trained as minders for people with special needs.

But they can also have special needs of their own. Ahead of International Dog Day on August 26th, we spoke to three dog owners whose four-legged friends need a little extra attention.

Catriona Dowling and her daughter Taylor live in Tralee, Co Kerry with Pumba, their Chinese Chow Chow, who is registered blind.

“When I collected Pumba at eight weeks old, I noticed his eyes were closed. I mentioned it to the breeder who assured me that he could open them,” Dowling says. “I was unfamiliar with the breed so, naïve as it sounds, I took their word for it.

“But when we got home, I realised that he definitely couldn’t see as he was walking into everything and his lids were shut very tightly, so I contacted the vet straight away. He agreed that he was likely to be blind, but performed a small procedure to help him open his eyes and relieve the pain.

“Then I went to Limerick to see an ophthalmologist who confirmed the blindness, and said his eyes never grew due to a birth defect. I was concerned as I didn’t know if he would need further treatment and if I would be financially stable enough to cover the costs, but to be honest, I knew the unconditional love Taylor and I had for him would help us overcome any obstacles, as he was now part of our family.”

‘Our little boy is 100 per cent blind but he gets on fine as he knows his surroundings.’ Kerry. Photograph: Alan Place
‘Our little boy is 100 per cent blind but he gets on fine as he knows his surroundings.’ Kerry. Photograph: Alan Place

Pumba recently won the title of Petmania Puppy of the Year, and Dowling says his loving and funny nature far outweighs the cost and effort of any extra care.

“Our little boy is 100 per cent blind but he gets on fine as he knows his surroundings, and both his hearing and sense of smell have heightened to help him adapt,” she says. “Caring for him is like caring for any other dog, but there is obviously a little extra needed as he doesn’t see danger and can’t be left off the lead for a run. Also, we have to make sure our front door is never left open in case he gets into the road.

Pumba is very special to us as he makes our house a home

“These things come naturally to us at this stage, and to be honest we wouldn’t have it any other way. The fact that he is visually impaired makes us love him even more - dogs help so many people with special needs, so how could we turn our backs on a dog who has extra needs? The loyalty, love and care they give us should be reciprocated by us as humans.

“Pumba is very special to us as he makes our house a home - he is the piece of the puzzle we didn’t know was missing until he completed our little family.”

Deirdre Damasceno Wall also has a dog with special needs. Living in Kilkenny with her wife Evelyn, their four-year-old son James and four dogs (Moe, Messie, Puppy and Maggie), the pet shop manager says they only discovered two years ago that their seven-year-old terrier Maggie had epilepsy.

“We returned home from a day out and when Maggie didn’t come out to greet us, we knew something was wrong,” says Damasceno Wall. “A couple of days later we heard a bang down the stairs and found Maggie collapsed on the ground. We rushed her to the vet and he said it could possibly be epilepsy, as she was in a seizure. He told us not to let her overheat and to keep an eye on her. It was eight months before she had the next one - but they continued.

Deirdre Damasceno Wall with her dog Maggie, who has epilepsy
Deirdre Damasceno Wall with her dog Maggie, who has epilepsy

“When she has seizures, her mood immediately changes and she is scared, which makes us worry as she is normally so playful. Her last big seizure was in September 2018 - she couldn’t stand by herself or go to the toilet outside and was barely eating or drinking. She also started attacking her back legs thinking she was in pain. But the vet assured us that this was ‘pseudo pain’ as her brain got a little fried. She is now on anti-seizure medication.”

While looking after Maggie requires extra work, Damasceno Wall says this is their duty and privilege as dog owners.

“I was asked by someone close to me if we would put Maggie down to put her out of pain, but she is pain-free and just needs a little bit of extra attention,” she says.

Being a dog owner is a privilege and a great responsibility - it can be hard work at times but it brings many rewards

“Having a pet with special needs is costly but the look in her eyes when she was sick broke my heart. She and the others are our babies, an extension of our little family and they give unconditional love and mind us when we are not feeling the best.

“Being a dog owner is a privilege and a great responsibility - it can be hard work at times but it brings many rewards. Over the past 40 years, research has pointed towards benefits to our physical and mental health, and one study indicated the possibility of reduced blood pressure for dog owners versus those who do not have dogs.

The psychological benefits of companionship and the sense of safety that dogs can bring to their owners are numerous. The connection between humans and dogs is profound, and I believe caring for and receiving companionship from your dog can add to the meaning and purpose of daily life.”

Helena Le Mahieu is part of the team at Ash Animal Rescue in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow - a centre with up to 150 animals in care at any given time. Many are waiting to be re-homed, while some are simply enjoying a better quality of life than they may have had in the past. Along with the cats (30 to 40 of them), ducks, guinea pigs, foxes, various farm animals and up to 90 dogs, Layla, the Beagle Harrier is a rescue animal who was in a very poor state when she was found four years ago.

We will never give up on her as long as she has quality of life and is willing to fight with us

“Layla has been here since January 2015 when she was found lying by the side of the road in Arklow,” says le Mahieu. “She was very neglected, blind in one eye and really unwell. She went through an emergency hysterectomy that night, but recovered well and started to enjoy life.

“The vet estimated that she was 10 years old at the time. She recently lost the use of her hind legs after she slipped a disc in her spine. An x-ray showed that this was putting huge pressure on her spinal cord, leaving her without control of her bladder and with her hind legs paralysed. Normally this would be surgically corrected but our Layla is too old for such an operation. And while euthanasia was mentioned we decided to look at other options first.”

Layla was taken to Lissenhall veterinary hospital for acupuncture to help with the mobility problems, and when progress was noted, she also started weekly hydrotherapy sessions and last week, took her first unaided steps.

“When she first lost the use of her legs, Layla’s needs were huge; we had to wash and disinfect her as the involuntary loss of urine caused skin burn,” le Mahieu says. “We take her to acupuncture every Wednesday and to hydrotherapy every Friday and also do physiotherapy with her every day.

“Every dog is special and deserves the best treatment available, and hopefully many dogs with find people to fight their corner. Layla is very loved by us and has taken up residence in our living room, which she enjoys very much. We will never give up on her as long as she has quality of life and is willing to fight with us to get back on her legs.”

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