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Adopting a Special Needs Cat: All you Need is Love

A small tabby striped cat lies on a pile of blankets. He looks up to the camera.

— Guest post by Garrett Simpson, adopter

The decision to welcome a new feline family member into your home is typically a fairly simple process. Choosing to adopt an animal companion with special needs, however, can be a complex decision that requires the consideration of many factors and necessitates that you weigh the needs of everyone involved.

My partner Helen and I have had the privilege of caring for two cats with special needs from Cat Adoption Team (CAT), Marmalade and Gus. We began fostering (and eventually adopting) Marmalade, an orange tabby with a neuromuscular condition in 2015. We welcomed Gus, a brown tabby kitten with a moderate-to-severe case of cerebellar hypoplasia, this past December. Prior to welcoming Marmalade into our home, we did not have much experience with cats with special needs. To say there was a steep learning curve is an understatement.

Two people sit side-by-side on a couch smiling into the camera. The person on the right holds an upside-down orange cat.
Helen and Garrett adopted their first special needs cat, Marmalade, in 2015

Marmalade’s condition involved the messages between his brain and muscles/nerves getting lost somewhere along the way. He was able to walk, but he had a very distinct gait (think AT-AT walker from the Star Wars movies) and had to lay down and take breaks after short distances. This made actions like jumping on and off things and getting in and out of the litter box more difficult. We had to learn how to best serve his needs while working within his limitations, which required us to adapt and do things differently than we had been for years with our other cats. Some things, like arranging his room to minimize the space between his favorite areas, were easy. Others, like re-training him to use the litter box, were difficult and messy. We used to joke that he owned stock in a major paper towel company. We also became very proficient at giving butt baths.

We loved Marmalade immensely, but there was a lengthy period of being frustrated and disheartened where we did not know if things would ever improve and that we were letting him down. Eventually, however, we were able to establish routines and practices that best fit Marmalade’s needs. It still was not easy and required constant adaptation, but we were no longer single handedly putting the owner of the major paper towel company’s grandchildren through college.

A small tabby cat with white on his chest lies on a colorful rug and looks up at the camera.
Garrett and Helen had agreed that there would always be room in their lives for a cat with extra needs. Gus joined their family last December.

After Marmalade’s passing in 2021, we made an agreement that there would always be room in our home for another cat with special needs. The impact that he had on our lives is hard to put into words, but our home and hearts felt empty. We were not actively looking for another special needs cat, but instead operated on the belief that the universe would bring another soul into our path when the time was right (or as right as the time can be when introducing a wild card into your established life and routines).

Enter Gus towards the end of 2023. He was born into the care of CAT with cerebellar hypoplasia (CH), a condition where his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls motor skills, balance, and coordination, fails to develop properly. It is not painful and does not improve or worsen over time, but cats with CH learn to adapt to the condition and lead happy, healthy lives. His potential caretakers would need to learn to adapt to his condition as well.

Garrett holds Marmalade and orange cat wearing a purple bandana around his neck.
Garrett and Marmalade met at CAT in 2015 and soon joined their household.

The decision to welcome Gus and his individual set of complications and needs into our home was not easy. Left solely on looks, that decision would have been a no-brainer; he was a beautiful, determined soul inside of a shaky, wobbly, furry body. However, it required us to have informational consultations with Gus’s amazing foster parent and the team at CAT and to have deep, often difficult conversations with ourselves. Our experience with Marmalade left us better prepared to anticipate and cater to Gus’s needs, but he would also bring a new set of challenges and adventures. He is now just over 5 months old, getting stronger by the day, and an irreplaceable part of our lives. Each day is a challenge for both him and us. We appreciate the easier days when we have them and push through the challenging ones with the understanding that they will become fewer and farther between as we all learn to adapt to Gus’s ever-changing needs.

What would lead us (and possibly you) to knowingly welcome something into our home that would cause us to constantly adapt our lives and routines for an undetermined amount of time? Not to sound cliche or to oversimplify it, but the answer is love. We do not enjoy being late to engagements because there is an immediate need for a bath, but we do love that we have the opportunity to help. There is an immeasurable joy that is attained by helping these cats’ lives become even the slightest bit better. They cannot help their conditions, but we can decide to help serve and meet their needs so they (and by default, we) may live the most fulfilling lives possible. That decision is not always an easy one, but life’s most rewarding decisions are often those that were not the easiest to make.

About Cat Adoption Team

Cat Adoption Team (CAT) is the largest cat shelter in the Pacific Northwest. We offer adoption, foster care, and veterinary services to homeless cats and kittens.

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