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Turning Disability Into Ability

Buster may be only six months old, but the kitten has already made a lifetime’s worth of impact in the lives of many people.

The tiger kitten was brought to Sylvia Newell of Pipestone when a friend found him while mowing near Flandreau, South Dakota.   Sylvia already had three dogs and two cats at home, but couldn’t turn away the small, abandoned kitten who also appeared to be blind.

At his first visit to Pipestone Veterinary Services, the kitten weighed one pound three ounces, but was already showing signs of a big personality.  Dr. Nicole Weber estimated that Buster was six to eight weeks old.  Because of his small size, they weren’t sure if his eyes were damaged or he was born without them.  In later visits, Dr. Weber determined that he had been born with no eyes at all.

“It didn’t seem to slow him down at all.  Even though he couldn’t see us, he would seek out a hand to be petted or held,” said Dr. Weber.

Dr. Weber assured Sylvia that Buster was otherwise healthy and could still enjoy a fulfilling life.  She noted that pets who are born with a disability very quickly adapt and use other senses to make up for what is missing.

“Even in pets where there is a disease or injury where we need to remove a limb, eye or other body part, animals typically adapt quickly,” said Dr. Weber.  “In fact, they are often much more comfortable because the diseased or painful part is removed and they feel much better.”

Buster quickly thrived in the Newells’ home, gaining weight and becoming more assertive as he learned his way around the house.  From the beginning, Sylvia was impressed with his ability to navigate between rooms.  He knows his way from room to room and can always find his food, water, and cat bed.  He has learned to climb up and down steps, climb up onto tables and ledges, and loves to play with his squeaky mouse toy.  He also adapted quickly to the litter box, never having an accident since he was brought into the home.

“Our other cats sleep on a ledge, and one day we found Buster there, too,” she said.  “I don’t know how he knew to go there and how he manages not to fall off, but he looked right at home and was able to get down easily, too.”

Buster can get excited running between rooms and playing with the other cats, and occasionally does bump into walls.  “He’s learned the word ‘CAREFUL’ and knows that when he hears it, it is time to slow down,” she said.  “He’s still learning to get out of the way of people walking, but that is something all cats seem to have trouble understanding.”

Buster gained not only a home, but a job as well.  He started accompanying Sylvia to her work at Progress, Inc. in Pipestone and has become a therapy cat for many clients.  Progress, Inc. is a non-profit that provides work and training to people with developmental disabilities in a community setting.

“He comes with me every day.  When it is time for work, he hops in the cat carrier and off we go,” she said.  Just like at home, Buster moves easily between rooms at Progress, Inc. and knows his way to familiar places.

The clients at Progress, Inc. feed Buster and keep his water bowl changed, and he has become an important part of the daily routine for many of them.  For some clients with autism or Asperger Syndrome, Buster is a calming influence that helps them focus. Buster will play with his cat toys with some clients, and with others will sit quietly on their laps for long periods of times.

“He is something special. He shows unconditional love to everyone and seems to know just what each person needs,” said Sylvia, noting that there are some clients who request “Buster Time” when they know they need to focus or calm down.

Sylvia and her husband Al appreciate the advice and support they’ve received from Pipestone Veterinary Services and Dr. Weber as they brought Buster into their home.  Buster has also had an impact on Dr. Weber and the clinic staff.

“We so often see animals that are very sick, so seeing a happy, healthy kitten that isn’t slowed down by a disability makes everyone in the office happy, too,” said Dr. Weber.

“He may be blind, but he misses nothing,” said Sylvia.  “This cat is living a full and productive life.”

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