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What Happens If Your Pet Outlives You?

Have a plan in place to ensure they wind up in a loving home

By Michele C. Hollow

When the ambulance arrived to remove the body of an older New York City resident, a woman in her eighties, they found Tina, an 11-year-old Chihuahua, standing guard. Emergency service workers took Tina to the city's animal shelter. Fortunately, a volunteer dog walker stopped by to walk Tina. When she heard where Tina was, she contacted Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) NY.

A little Chihuahua dog with perky ears. Next Avenue, what happens to pets when owners die
Tina, an 11-year-old Chihuahua, went from a New York City animal shelter to foster care and then into a permanent home  |  Credit: Photo courtesy of PAWS NY

"Tina's owner was a client of ours," said Carrie Nydick Finch, deputy director of Programs and Strategy for PAWS NY, a nonprofit that provides services to vulnerable New Yorkers who need support caring for their pets due to physical and financial obstacles. "The volunteer dog walker knew Tina and her owner, a woman with mobility issues. She's been a client of ours for seven years."

"When pet owners die, move into a nursing home that doesn't allow pets, or become too ill to care for their pets, we step in," Nydick Finch said. "These are our clients who we've come to know. We've built a relationship with them and their pets."

"When pet owners die, move into a nursing home that doesn't allow pets, or become too ill to care for their pets, we step in."

The nonprofit works closely with Animal Care Centers (ACC) of NYC, the city's animal shelter.

"They know us," said Nydick Finch, "which means we can go in, take the pet out of the shelter, and place the animal in foster care until we find a loving home."

Another benefit of knowing the pet allows PAWS NY to place the pet in an appropriate home. In Tina's case, she needed to be in a household with no other dogs, cats or kids.

Like Tina, Ruby, a 7-year-old Abyssinian cat, needed to be a solo pet. She found a new home through PAWS NY when her owner, a 90-year-old New Yorker with cognitive issues, moved into a nursing home.

Have a Plan in Place to Care for Your Pet

As Ruby's owner started to decline a few years prior, a family member contacted PAWS NY; volunteers came to the apartment four times a week to clean the litter box, feed, and care for Ruby.

"In this case, we were able to take Ruby when her owner moved into the nursing home," said Nydick Finch. "She didn't wind up in a shelter. She was fostered until we found a permanent home for her."

Tina's and Ruby's stories have happy endings. "Emergencies happen all the time," said Dianne McGill, founder and president of Pet Peace of Mind. "We're in forty-four states and we help pets find suitable homes when they become orphaned."

McGill recommends having an advanced directive or living will for your pets.

"And talk to your family about the type of care you want for your pets," McGill added. "That discussion should be made early on before you're sick and can't care for your pet. It's the best thing you can do for [them]."

A tan colored cat laying down on a couch. Next Avenue, what happens to pets when owners die
Volunteers at PAWS NY knew Ruby, a 7-year-old Abyssinian cat they cared for. When her owner moved into a nursing home, Ruby was placed in foster care before moving into a permanent home  |  Credit: Photo courtesy of PAWS NY

Like PAWS NY, Pet Peace of Mind doesn't charge for its services. They also find homes for a variety of animals. One client, a man in his 70s with three horses, wished to die at his Idaho ranch. When his cancer progressed and he could no longer care for his horses, Pet Peace of Mind stepped in with food, hay, and volunteers. The horses were rehomed right after the man died.

Finding the right home for a cat, dog or even a horse has its challenges. Try rehoming a snake.

"Not everyone wants to care for one," McGill said. "This is a dying wish. People love their pets and worry about leaving them behind. I've seen some people hang on and pass peacefully once they know their pet is properly cared for."

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Find the Right Caretaker for Your Pet

Start by asking your adult children. With people living in different states and many with their own pets, they might not be the best choice.

"This is a dying wish. People love their pets and worry about leaving them behind."

"My father-in-law had prostate cancer," said Vicki Stevens, director of program management and communications for companion animals with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  "He had two cocker spaniels and a cat. The dogs were bonded to one another, so we wanted to keep them together. His ten-year-old cat wound up living with the caretaker who took care of my father-in-law."

Stevens, who has her own pets, took the dogs until she found them a permanent home.

"In addition to planning in advance, have more than one person at the ready to care for your pets if and when the time comes," Stevens said.

Pets in Senior Living Facilities

"One misconception is that senior living, independent living and nursing homes don't allow pets," said Julie Burgess, certified dog trainer and veterinary technician. "Many do. Ask if there are breed or weight restrictions and if there's a one-time or monthly fee. And ask them what happens to your pet when you can no longer care for your pet."

8 Points to Consider When Making Plans for Your Pet

As you are putting together a plan to find a home for your pet, make sure to consider the following 8 points:

  1. When you are of sound mind, ask family members and close friends if they’ll care for your pets when you no longer can. Check back with them because plans change. Your pet’s potential caretaker may no longer be able to care for your pet.
  2. While you’re healthy, set up a pet trust and share it with your pet’s potential caretakers.
  3. If you adopted from an animal shelter or rescue, call and ask them if they’ll take the pet back
    when you can no longer care for your pet. Better yet, ask about their return policies when you adopt. Best Friends Animal Society has a lifetime commitment to pets they adopted out.
  4. Keep bonded pets together. It’s less stressful for your pets.
  5. Share a list of your pet’s diet, favorite treats, walking schedule, health history, medications and the phone number of your pet’s veterinarian with potential caretakers.
  6. Tell a neighbor about your plans. In the event of an emergency, a neighbor should know whom to contact about your pets.  
  7. Carry a wallet alert card that lists the names and phone numbers of your emergency pet caregivers.
  8. Post the names and phone numbers of your emergency pet caregivers on your refrigerator. Most emergency service workers know to look there or on the inside of your front door. This way, your pets won’t wind up in a city shelter. This list should also contain the names, ages, types of pets and numbers of pets in your home.

Michele C. Hollow Michele C. Hollow is a freelance writer, editor and ghostwriter specializing in health, climate, social justice, pets and travel. Follow her on Twitter at @michelechollow.   Read More
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