Heather Wilson and her husband and two teenagers have never known a life without pets. But Heather admits that, up until recently, they had never really thought of adopting an animal that had a disability or special need. Now, after having adopted a kitten with cerebellar hypoplasia (CH), a permanent condition that affects the cerebellum and makes balancing difficult, Heather believes that animals with disabilities make some of the best pets.
Heather’s 17-year-old daughter, Cady, is very involved with special needs students at her school, and she’s also a big animal lover, so a special needs pet was right up her alley. “I don’t know what it is about her,” says Heather. “She’s like the cat whisperer. I’ve never seen an animal not love her to death.”
Cady is the one who first pushed the family to adopt an animal with a disability.
“She loves helping people, and I think her love of helping special needs people or the elderly or little kids or anything like that, along with her love of animals, I think it was a good just fit,” says Heather. “That’s just her thing.”
Cady follows cats with cerebellar hypoplasia (CH) on Instagram, so she was interested in adopting a pet with this specific disability. When she saw Ziggy (then called Pashie) for the first time online, she instantly fell in love with him. The little kitten had been rescued from an abandoned building in Montenegro and taken care of there for a while before being transferred to a rescue run by a woman named Beth in the U.S. in early 2023. Now he was waiting for his forever family, and Cady knew he was the cat for them.
“When Ziggy came to us, I definitely was apprehensive,” Heather recalls. “But I kind of just felt like, the way that all the stars aligned, it was kind of meant to be. We reached out, and Beth was like, ‘I was thinking about you guys for him. Could you get him on Friday?’ Like it all just kind of worked out.”
The family named their new addition Ziggy, as in “zig-zag,” because of his condition, and he slept for five hours on Cady’s lap on the ride home. Heather knew then that he was meant to be part of their family.
Of course, bringing a special needs cat home was not without its challenges. The family keeps litter boxes on all floors of their home so that Ziggy does not have to traverse the stairs multiple times a day. He also has a ramp to get up on the couch. They’ve made lots of little accommodations to help him with daily activities that he struggles with.
“It really affects the back half of him the most,” Heather explains. “So he cannot really walk in a straight line. He can make it a few steps, and then he just kind of falls over. But it doesn’t seem to bother him.”
Ziggy has to go to the vet often, both for checkups because of his condition and also because he tends to injure himself on occasion. He’s missing some teeth from his falls and may soon have to have more of them removed, which may serve to prevent him from injuring himself further.
Ziggy, now about nine months old, does have some trouble getting along with the family’s three other cats as well, mostly because he’s young and wants to play. Grumpy nine-year-old Walter tolerates most of Ziggy’s antics, but his sister Skyler simply won’t have it most of the time. Eight-year-old Mickey gets along reasonably well with Ziggy but will put the playful kitty in his place when necessary.
“I would say Ziggy is very much a kitten and wants to play,” says Heather. “I’ve never seen a cat play more than Ziggy. If it moves, it’s a toy, and he will destroy it. And, unfortunately, our cats move, and so Ziggy thinks they’re all just toys and wants to destroy all of them.”
All in all, Heather says, they’re learning how to live together, and things are getting better all the time.
Ziggy has also struggled with simple tasks like eating and using the litter box, leading to one of his many nicknames – Ziggy Piggy (or just Piggy). Heather describes the early days with Ziggy as being like having a brand new baby.
“He has kind of moderate to extreme CH, so even standing still is hard for him a lot,” says Heather. “For a while, when he was small, we would like hold him while he ate, because if we didn’t, he would just fall, and his face would go in the cat food, and it’d be all over. And then the litter box was actually very tricky.”
Ziggy has learned to urinate lying down to steady himself, but “number two” has been more of an issue.
“He would lie down, and then he’d want to cover it, and then it would just be all over him. So there were lots of Ziggy baths, and he hates them. And then we got wipes, but he hated the wipes,” Heather recalls. “I was home at the time pretty much full-time for work, so if I heard him in the litter box, I’d go run in there, and he would let me hold him, and if he went number two while I was holding him, I would just get him out of the litter really quick and cover it, and he would go back and look and be like, ‘Okay, someone took care of it,’ and just go on his merry way.”
Luckily, things improved after Ziggy was neutered and as he grew and learned how to do better. In fact, in the few short months that he’s been with the Wilsons, this determined and intelligent kitty has learned to do almost everything he needs to do by himself.
For example, the family was concerned at first that he would fall through the railing from the upper story of their home to the lower one, but he’s never once had that issue. He’s also gotten great at climbing the stairs by himself, often using the wall to steady himself as he goes.
“I think that’s what his followers love so much is that he’s so smart,” says Heather. “He’s smart, and nothing really keeps him down.”
Ziggy has also not allowed his disease to keep him from playing, and he even learned the game of fetch. “One of my favorite things about Zig is we discovered that he plays fetch, and he is so proud of himself when he brings things back,” laughs Heather. “So every night we play fetch for a few minutes, and he knows that it’s fetch time, like he will be waiting for me at the top of the stairs. But he’s really funny. He will only play fetch in our upstairs hallway, and he will only play in one direction.”
Heather, who is a marketing manager, is no stranger to social media, so it was only natural that she and her daughter start an Instagram for Ziggy. They wanted people who had been following his recovery story to be able to continue to see him grow and thrive in his new environment. The page has also been a way to advocate for the adoption of special needs pets.
Ziggy’s story is one of resilience and determination, and he’s taught his family a lot already. In the end, Heather hopes that all adopters will be aware of their own strengths and limitations before adopting any pet with special needs, but she also hopes that Ziggy motivates more people to take on the responsibility of a pet with a disability if they’re able to.
“They’re a different kind of perfection,” she says. “There’s only one Ziggy. We will probably never have another pet that is like Ziggy.”Whizzco