How to Make a Happy Home for Cats With Special Needs


Cats who have special needs make wonderful companions. They might be blind, deaf, or mobility-challenged. Some are born with disabilities, others are involved in life-changing accidents or they develop problems as they age. Although cats who have impairments are a joy to live with, they can also be challenging. Homes, schedules, and activities need to be modified so that disabled kitties can adapt and live full, happy lives.

Here’s how you can help them overcome their impairments:

1. Keep them indoors

The outdoors is a dangerous place for cats, and even more risky for those who have disabilities. These special cats need to live indoors — never venturing outside unless yards are enclosed with non-electric cat fences or have enclosures. These protective measures keep cats safe in secured areas and protect them from other animals. Although safer, special needs kitties are still vulnerable. Always supervise them when they are outdoors.

2. Develop a routine

Cats feel more secure and less stressed when they have a fixed daily routine. Additionally, routines are great for strengthening bonds between cats and their special people — kitties anticipate the enjoyable interactions. Establish and try to keep to a routine. Feed, play, clicker train, and groom your special kitty at the same times every day.

3. Meet litter box needs

Some disabled cats might eliminate outside their litter boxes. The boxes may be too far away or difficult to access, or the disability may include a level of incontinence. Reduce the number of accidents by increasing the number of uncovered litter boxes throughout your home. Cats with challenges need more litter boxes than those without disabilities. Locate the boxes in areas where the cat hangs out, and in places where she cannot be cornered. Felines who have mobility challenges need litter boxes with low sides that are easy to step into.

Although there are a variety of disabilities that can afflict cats, the following three are common.

1. Visual impairment

When one sense is diminished or doesn’t function, the others take over. Cats who are visually impaired rely more on scent, hearing, and touch to navigate their world. Whiskers play an important part — feeling air currents and detecting objects.

Blind cats need help adjusting to their environments. The first order of business is making your home easy to navigate. Clutter-free is ideal, but not always possible. A fixed environment is necessary though; cats memorize the placement of objects and furniture through touch and scent. Don’t move the sofas, tables, and other household furniture. Additionally, scratchers and cat trees need to stay put. They help cats orient themselves because the cats have marked the items with their scents by scratching and rubbing.

Despite the best intentions, visually impaired cats sometimes bump into objects. You can help minimize injuries by covering sharp corners with sisal or other cushioning materials.

Cats need vertical territory. Blind cats typically find it difficult to jump up high. Help your little one by placing pet steps, stools, and other objects strategically so that she can join you for a snuggle on the bed or relax on a cat tree. Although vertical territory is necessary, limit the height; four to five feet is high enough. Be aware that slick surfaces can be hazardous. Make shelves safe — use Velcro or double-sided tape to stick sisal or carpet on them. In addition to potentially stopping a fall, sisal is perfect for scratching, marking, and keeping felines warm on chilly days.

It is normal for visually impaired cats to become startled when they hear loud and sudden noises. When approaching your kitty, softly call her name. Gently tapping the floor will also help her orient to you.

Mental stimulation is important. Blind kitties appreciate soft toys that rattle, squeak, and appeal to their sense of smell. Scent the toy by rubbing catnip or a treat on it. Motivate her to play by using a pole toy with a stuffed toy at the end that rattles or is scented with a favorite treat.

2. Hearing impairment

Some cats are born deaf; others lose their hearing as they age. Because they can’t hear themselves, they tend to meow louder than kitties who do hear. They aren’t the only hearing impaired animals who loudly express themselves. You may have friends or relatives with hearing loss who talk really loud.

These kitties are scaredy cats. They are very sensitive and startle easily when surprised or woken without warning. Although they can’t hear, they do respond to vibration. Alert your special cat when you are nearby by tapping your foot or fingers on the floor. Whenever possible, approach her from the front so that she can see you. Turning lights on and off and waving hands are also effective for getting a deaf cat’s attention.

With practice, deaf cats can be trained to come with a hand signal. Clicker training is very effective, reinforcing the cat whenever she responds to the visual signal. Instead of using an audible marker like a clicker, use a flashlight. One quick flash from the light, followed by a treat she loves, will reinforce her whenever she comes toward you after she sees your visual cue.

3. Mobility challenges

There are as many kinds of mobility impairments as there are causes for them. Some cats are born missing a limb, others lose them in accidents. Painful arthritis, injuries, and age-related diseases can greatly impact movement. Many cats with these issues can’t climb or jump very well. It is easy for them to morph into couch potatoes, opting to minimize movements.

Disabled cats need to move and exercise. Those who have difficulty climbing and jumping can be encouraged to higher areas by placing carpeted pet steps and other easy-to-reach textured objects near beds and couches. Textures such as carpet and sisal help them grab, pull, and stabilize as they traverse the surfaces. Severely handicapped kitties may need special carpeted ramps built for them.

Playing will help keep these little ones mentally and physically stimulated. Play needs to be tailored to the individual — it will depend on age and limitations. Treasure hunts and treat rolls are also effective for encouraging cats to move. Place treats and food in toys and on easy-to-reach surfaces. Roll special treats near the kitty. In order to enjoy it, she will have to chase it a short distance.

You may be an ideal candidate for a special-needs kitty. Before adopting one, make sure that you have the time and that you can modify your home to help her overcome her disability and easily navigate her world.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.

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