Pet Loss: Providing for Pet Care in Your Absence

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Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory.  ~ Miguel de Cervantes

When my father died of a heart attack several years ago, my family was totally unprepared. I lived several states away at the time, and in all the confusion, shock and sadness that surrounded his sudden and unexpected death, some decisions were made in haste by other family members, with little or no opportunity for any input from me.

One of the most important decisions involved his dog ~ the Bouvier des Flanders named Daisy who previously had belonged to me, a dog whom I loved dearly, but one that I had given to my dad in an effort to alleviate some of the pain and loneliness he felt after his beloved St. Bernard Banjo had died. It broke my heart to let her go, but I knew that my dad would love her every bit as much as I did, and sure enough, they quickly became very attached to each other. Like her canine predecessors, Daisy took her place at my father's side wherever he went, whether that was lying beneath his desk while he was seeing patients in his office or accompanying him in the car while he was making house calls.

What happened to Daisy in the immediate aftermath of my father’s death still haunts me to this day. My dad had made no prior arrangements for Daisy’s care in the event that something would happen to him, and in the mistaken belief that there was no other alternative, the dog was taken to the local vet and euthanized. Had I been consulted beforehand, I would have taken her back in a heartbeat, but I learned of the decision after the fact, when it was too late for me to do anything about it.

This was one of the saddest experiences of my life, but it has taught me a valuable lesson.

How often do we leave our companion animals home alone, never stopping to consider what would happen to them if something unexpected happened to us? Circumstances may be such that we're unable to get home to water, feed or take our pets out to relieve themselves.

What would happen to your pet, for example, in the event that you suddenly became ill or incapacitated, were in an accident, were hospitalized, if you were placed in a long-term care facility, or if you were to die?

Providing for your pets in your absence is an important part of responsible pet ownership, especially if you're elderly or if you live alone.

What You Can Do to Provide for Your Pets
  • Place a sticker on your home's front door or window to inform firefighters, police or emergency medical technicians that you have pet(s) inside. Include the type of pet (cat, dog, bird, etc.), how many, and where the pet(s) can be taken in case of emergency.
  • Make certain that at least one of your neighbors knows what you want to do about your pet(s) if something happens to you or you're unable to get home. 
  • Designate a friend or relative who's willing to become your pet's caretaker in your absence. Be sure this caretaker has access to your home (a key to your house or apartment), knows what type and number of pets you have and their names, and knows your veterinarian's name, address and phone number. (If friends or relatives aren't willing or available, you can arrange in advance for a local animal shelter to take your pet, along with a donation to cover expenses, until your pet can be placed in another home. If your animal is a of a particular breed, a breeder or rescue service for that breed may be of help to you.)
  • Carry a wallet-sized card and key tags with you, listing your pets by type and name, where they are and who should care for them (including name, address and phone number) in case of an emergency.
  • Add an amendment (a "codicil") to your will that specifies the arrangements you've made for your pet's comfort and care, and give a copy to your pet's designated caretaker. For further information, including sample will provisions, see Providing For Your Pets in the Event of Your Death or Hospitalization, published by The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals, Office of Communications, 42 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036-6690, telephone (212) 382-6690.
  • Set up a trust for your pet. This is a legally sanctioned arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of your pet in the event of your disability and/or death. See, for example, ASPCA's Pet Trust Primer article.
     
  • Gather all your pet's important papers together, and send copies to your pet's designated caretaker. Include your pet's type, breed, sex, birth date, description, license number, photograph, certificates of registration and pedigree if any, medical history and record of vaccinations. Add any special instructions such as diet, favorite treats and toys. State what you'd like done with your pet's body after death.
     
  • Use the tools on Living Smart, an online toolbox with free downloads enabling you to easily provide the information, instructions and authorizations necessary for others to lend a hand to help you. You can print a form directly from the website to complete by hand, or you can download a form to your computer to complete and save, so you can easily make changes in the future. Then email a copy to friends and family so they have the information needed to help in an emergency (see Pet Care Instructions and Permission for Others to Care for Your Pet(s) During Your Absence, Illness or Emergency).
What will happen to your pet if you do not plan for the future? Sadly, in the confusion that accompanies your sudden illness, incapacity, hospitalization or death, your beloved companion could be overlooked or forgotten, or even taken to an animal shelter to be adopted or euthanized. It doesn't have to be that way. Forewarned is forearmed: Be prepared for the unexpected.

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

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