Senior Kitties: Special Needs, Then and Now

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By Dr. Jacque Harter
Veterinarian, Willamette Humane Society

Since I first started volunteering at Willamette Humane Society in 2004, doing physical examinations on shelter animals, things have changed a lot. 

In the beginning, I worked in a small room that had previously been used for food storage. I (sometimes) had a spare employee to help me, very basic diagnostic equipment, and a small budget to spend on medical needs, such as blood work or x-rays. Our stock of medical supplies was sparse. Surgeries needed to be sent out to local veterinarians, who were helpful but busy with their own patient loads. 

And the shelter’s Medical Program wasn’t the only department that was challenged. Space to house animals that required lengthy stays for treatment and recovery was nonexistent. And the now booming WHS Foster Program had just been established, mostly utilized for unweaned kittens. 

We treated each animal’s medical needs as best we could, but the lack of resources made it a challenge to save lives.

But in the past 16 years, I’ve watched things around Willamette Humane Society change dramatically. The WHS Spay and Neuter Clinic opened in 2010, which brought to us an additional veterinarian and our first Certified Veterinary Technician, providing more trained staff members to care for animals.

The clinic helped to reduce pet overpopulation in Marion and Polk counties, which also decreased intake into the shelter. And as a result, this allowed WHS to allot more resources to assist special needs animals, such as in-house care and surgical procedures, to improve their quality of life and opportunities to find a forever family through adoption.

Almost two decades later, WHS has a dedicated donor-funded Shelter Medical Team and a medical clinic equipped with diagnostic equipment for onsite care—though we still send out animals to local veterinary clinics for things such as x-rays. In addition, the WHS Foster Program has expanded to include several dedicated “medical fosters.” These volunteers specialize in providing advanced care for medical and surgical patients in their own homes until the animals are ready for adoption. 

These days, just as it was back in 2004, cats and dogs are brought to WHS with a variety of medical needs. But the biggest change is that we now have the necessary resources and staffing to help more of these animals to find forever homes.

Cats such as Mitzy, Ozzy and Angel, all middle-aged cats who were surrendered with ongoing medical needs, are current examples of the animals that myself and the Shelter Medical Team are caring for right now. 

Mitzy is a charming, long-haired cat with diabetes. She was surrendered for urinating outside her litter box, but she hadn’t yet received medical screening to possibly identify an underlying medical condition. Our in-house diagnostics allowed for Mitzy’s rapid diagnosis and treatment. And then, a wonderful medical foster volunteer cared for Mitzy between her weekly blood glucose curves. During her time at WHS, Mitzy went into remission and no longer needed insulin to treat her diabetes. She was adopted shortly after returning to the shelter.  

Ozzy, a loving, short-haired cat, suffers from hyperthyroid and needs oral medication twice a day. His intensive daily care was made possible through the WHS Foster Program, while the WHS team were able to monitor and retest Ozzy until his hormone levels were steady. Ozzy’s sparkling personality quickly found him a forever home after we were able to clear him for adoption.

Angel arrived at WHS as a stray with severe infection. Both of his eyes were severely infected and damaged. Our Medical Team was able to assess his options for the best possible quality of life. We made the decision to surgically remove his eyes, a procedure done right here onsite at the WHS Spay and Neuter Clinic. Angel then spent time in the WHS Foster Program to recover and adjust to a sightless world. Shortly after his recovery, Angel was also adopted. 

These three cats are all examples of special-needs animals who need complex and costly medical care. But Willamette Humane Society was equipped with the resources needed to make that care possible. And as a result, their lives were made better through the work we do at WHS.