My daughter and I volunteer at our local humane society, taking the dogs out for walks around the shelter grounds. Sometimes we don’t know the stories behind the dogs we walk, but often we do. And the dogs whose stories most break my heart are those of beloved, long-term companions whose owners have passed away or taken ill. Often extended family will bring the dog to the shelter, claiming that they just don’t have the resources to care for Dad’s dog and that their efforts to find a new home for the animal have failed. Sometimes the animals are themselves quite elderly, and spend their final days among strangers, bewildered by their new circumstances.
I have fretted about what will happen to my animals—two dogs and a cat—if my husband and I both meet some unexpected end, and until yesterday I thought I had done enough to prepare for an unexpected emergency. After all, we’ve talked to family who might in put into a position of “inheriting” our animals and we’ve identified our animals in our will (they are considered tangible personal property). But last night I listened to a lecture by Amy Shever, who directs an organization called 2nd Chance 4 Pets, and I now realize that there is far more I can and should do to ensure that my animals are cared for in exactly the way I would like.
There is no formal system or strategy for addressing the issue of orphaned pets. If a human caretaker hasn’t developed a plan, the animal’s fate is left up to luck and circumstance. Some animals are adopted (happily or begrudgingly) by family members or friends, some are rehomed with the help of rescue groups, veterinarians, pet sitters, or other concerned individuals. The less fortunate will wind up being relinquished to shelters. Orphaned animals who end up in shelters often get labeled as unadoptable because they are so despondent—refusing to eat, showing little interest in interaction. They don’t “sell” well, in the shelter setting.
Shever estimates that of the nearly 4 million cats and dogs euthanized in shelters each year in the U.S., at least 500,000 wind up under the needle because they have outlived their owners or because their owners have become ill or disabled or otherwise unable to care for them. Although spay and neuter programs and the spread of “no kill” approaches to sheltering have certainly reduced the number of companion animals being euthanized in this country over the past decade, 4 million is still an enormous number, and it is exceedingly sad and wrong that so many animals are still dying in our shelters. 2nd Chance 4 Pets is one of many advocacy groups trying to chip away at this problem.
According to Shever, all responsible pet owners need to have a plan for their animal. These care plans are particularly crucial for long-lived animals, like large birds, horses, and some reptiles. But all pets need a plan, ‘cause you just never know. And as Shever notes, it isn’t just elderly and terminally ill people who need to think about these things. She related the story of Sophie, a very shy and loyal cat whose human companion simply failed to come home one day. The human companion was only 32. Sophie spent two weeks alone in her owner’s home before anyone found her.
There are some concrete steps we can take to ensure that our animal companions will be cared for, should something happen to us. Shever focused on three components of a Lifetime Care Plan.
1. Caregivers. Identify at least two responsible friends or relatives who will commit to caring for your pets, either permanently (if you die) or temporarily (if you wind up with an unexpected hospitalization). People who don’t have family or friends willing to commit to care can explore other possibilities: a pet sitter, a breed rescue group, veterinary students, or veterinary technicians.
2. Written instructions. A designated caregiver will be able to do a much better job caring for an animal if they have a clear and detailed set of instructions. These should include things like diet, exercise, medications or special medical needs, the daily routine, where to find up to date medical records, name and number of preferred veterinarian, and pet sitters. It is really helpful to include some information about behavioral habits (e.g., loves to chase balls, is scared of people on bikes, hates the vacuum, etc.). You know, better than anyone, what your animal needs and likes and expects, and passing this information along can help ease transitions and retain continuity in care.
3. Financing. Providing adequate money for the lifetime care of your pet can make an enormous difference in how well they are cared for. Begin with a simple calculation: estimated yearly costs (food, vet, etc.) x life expectancy. Various legal tools can be employed to established funds for lifetime care, including wills and estate planning, pet trusts, Animal Care Panels, and Perpetual Care Programs. (Detailed information about each of these options can be found here, on 2nd Chance’s website).
It is hard to think about my own death—and even more so, to think about something happening to my whole nuclear (human) family. But I am aware now of just how irresponsible it is for me to push these worries aside and not make a concrete and detailed plan for my critters. This week I’m filling out the Care Instructions worksheet provided by 2nd Chance, and the emergency ID card. I like the idea of establishing a pet trust, and plan to explore this option.
If you have pets, please spend some time creating a detailed plan for their care. The 2nd Chance 4 Pets website provides valuable resources—all of them free of charge. You can find Care Instructions, downloadable Emergency ID Card, and information about financial planning.
Here are a few additional resources that Amy Shever sent me:
A presentation that 2nd Chance shares frequently to help communicate the issue of pets outliving their owners:
A short video that is relative to their cause (*note* both of these dogs were adopted!):
You can access Shever’s lecture (“Lifetime Care Planning”) on the website of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care. Under the Education tab, go to "Webinars." It costs $25 to download. You can also find nearly all of the information contained in the lecture by browsing through 2nd Chance for Pets’ website.