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Who Inherits Your Pet?

Make sure your beloved animal is cared for, even if you become ill or die unexpectedly

Woman with cat and dog at home

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When Luna’s owner entered hospice care at The Villages in Florida, the future was uncertain for the lonesome-eyed Staffordshire terrier-boxer mix. She was boarded at a local veterinary clinic and, when her owner died, put up for adoption. Luna found a new home with Peggy Maina, a 69-year-old retired special education teacher, who had searched through dozens of web listings for a dog to keep her company.

“She looked like an animal I could bond with,” recalls Maina, who lives at The Villages.

Cornerstone Hospice and Palliative Care, a local health care organization, arranged the adoption through its pet program, which is affiliated with Pet Peace of Mind, a national organization.

“Our goal is actually for all our patients to have a plan for their pet,” says Lisa Gray, the coordinator of the Cornerstone program. But when a plan isn’t in place, the program will try to find a new home for a dog or cat, sometimes by posting pet pictures on its Facebook page.

While there aren’t reliable statistics available, Luna’s story is all too common, according to animal welfare organizations.

“It happens almost every day. People contact me and say, my parent has gone into hospice, and the dogs have to go somewhere,” says Amy Shever, founder and director of 2nd Chance 4 Pets, a Sacramento, California-based nonprofit that helps people plan for the possibility that their pets may outlive them. “That’s the hard thing — when it becomes a desperate situation.”

Help is out there

It doesn’t have to be that way. Animal advocates advise all pet owners, especially older adults, to take advantage of the numerous websites and organizations that can assist in preparing for the time when they may no longer be able to care for a pet at home.

Vicki Stevens, director of program management and communications for companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), says that people unable to care for their pets have options besides leaving them at shelters, which can be stressful for the animals.

  • Adopt-a-Pet.com’s Rehome website enables a pet owner to advertise that a pet is available for adoption. Rehome’s staff can help select the best potential adopters and arrange meetups.
  • Home to Home similarly can assist pet owners who need to give up their pets and offer new homes to them.

Prepare for the unexpected

“Everyone should have a plan in place for pet care,” Stevens says. HSUS recommends pet owners take the following steps to protect their pet in case of death or if a sudden illness or accident leaves them incapacitated:

  • Find two responsible friends or relatives willing to serve as temporary emergency caregivers. Give them keys to your home, care and feeding instructions, and your veterinarian’s contact information. Inform them about any behavioral or health issues, as well as any permanent care provisions. You can write a contract to reimburse them for whatever costs they incur.
  • Make sure your neighbors, friends and relatives know how many pets you have, and give them your designated caregivers’ contact information.
  • Write your emergency caregivers’ contact information on an alert card that you can carry in your wallet.
  • Post “in case of emergency” signs about your pets on your doors or windows for first responders, and post designated caregivers’ contact info inside your doors.

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Don’t wait to prepare

As we age, it’s important to be aware of health problems that may hinder pet care. Stevens recalls that her father-in-law grew concerned that his energetic dogs might cause him to lose his balance and fall. “He entrusted us to rehome them,” she says. Difficulty bending over to clean the litter box or fill a food bowl could be another warning sign.

A pet owner with health problems may be able to get assistance. Pet Peace of Mind, in Salem, Oregon, helps hospices set up volunteer pet-care programs. “It ranges from daily services, such as walking and feeding, to transporting pets to the vet or whatever the patient needs,” says Dianne McGill, founder and president. If needed, volunteers can assist a person in rehoming as well.

How to help pets and people adjust to change

It’s not easy for a person to give up a beloved pet, but a gradual transition can make it less painful.

At Cornerstone, Gray says she adopted Scrat, a longhaired Chihuahua mix, from a patient at the facility who worried about his pet’s future. She continued to bring Scrat back to see his previous owner, right up until his death, which lifted his spirits. In addition, Gray “got to learn so much about Scrat and his personality, and the things I needed to know to take good care of him,” she recalls.

Transitions can be tough for pets as well. Lindsay Hamrick, dog behaviorist and HSUS director of shelter outreach and engagement, says it may take a month or longer for a dog to adjust.

“New pet adopters can set the dog up for success by establishing a predictable routine for the dog and seeking out the help of a professional if the dog is struggling with any members of the family or other pets in the house,” Hamrick says.

When Maina found that Luna barked continually and pulled on her leash during walks, she hired a behavioral trainer, who helped her calm the dog.

“She’s a much different dog now than when I got her,” says Maina, who notes that they are constant companions — spending most of their evenings sitting together in a recliner chair.

 

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Patrick J. Kiger is a contributing writer for AARP. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including the 
Los Angeles Times Magazine, GQ and Mother Jones, as well as the websites of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.​​

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