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COA speakers urge pet owners to plan for their animals’ future

Eighty-five million families in the United States own at least one pet. That’s 68% of the population. How many of those owners have a plan for what would happen to their pet if they themselves met with a crisis, had a lengthy hospitalization, or died? Many people, especially older adults, have probably worried about such a scenario but haven’t actually prepared for it. Not having a plan can cause stress for owners and for pets themselves and the people in whose care they may end up. Last week the Council on Aging sponsored a webinar that gave viewers guidelines to help them address the question, “What About Fido?”

The two speakers, women who have known each other for 45 years, each spoke from her own specialized experience, but there was an easy interaction between them. Melissa Connolly holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Tufts University, and she has had a house call practice for 27 years. Cathleen Summers is a registered nurse and an attorney, specializing in estate planning and elder law.

Who will take care of me? (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

Connolly said having a pet does a person good, and this is true for older adults as well. Pet ownership promotes increased physical activity and socialization and provides feelings of support, safety, and a sense of community. Along with the pluses of having a pet comes the responsibility of providing for it if the owner becomes unable to do so. People plan for all kinds of things—their kids, their estates, their personal property—“but pets are not planned for in the way they should be,” said Connolly.

Make a plan

Pet owners need to think about who will care for their pets in the event of a long-term illness or death. A friend or family member is likely an owner’s first choice, said Connolly, but an owner needs to ask someone, to actually have the discussion; they can’t assume it will just happen. An owner should not consider a casual agreement on the part of family or friend as a plan. The agreement should be in writing perhaps; it needs to be revisited often to make sure the other person is still willing to assume the responsibility. The owner needs to make sure the potential caretaker knows what they are getting into. Are there medications the animal takes and would the person be comfortable administering them? Are there behavioral issues or things that frighten the animal? Would the animal get along with other animals or children in the house? Ideally, the friend or family member who takes over care of the pet will be sensitive to the fact that the animal may have strong reactions to the loss of its owner.

Connolly said a vet can be a resource. Though they aren’t in the business of placing animals, they can provide a role in some owners’ plans. She gave an example of a client of hers who had two indoor cats. The cats were traumatized interacting with anyone other than their owner and could never adjust to being relocated. Connolly said she agreed to the owner’s request to euthanize the cats should the owner die before they did.

An owner could plan to have the pet taken to an animal shelter, and sometimes that choice has a happy ending. But, said Connolly, there is no guarantee that the pet will be adopted and, if it is, that it will adjust to the new situation.

Write down details

Connolly had several recommendations for planning ahead for a short-term illness or an emergency. If the owner is receiving care at home, they should not assume a home health aide can help with an animal. It’s a good idea to find a pet sitter or friend to care for the pet before the need arises. Let the pet meet the person, and acquaint the caretaker with the animal’s routine. Give as much information as possible about the animal’s likes and dislikes. Connolly described one man who had an entire notebook of information on his pet: the pet’s name; picture (maybe so if the animal is hiding, one will know what one is looking for); contact numbers, including vet; food specifications; any meds, as well as behavioral quirks. She said just a sheet of paper will do, or a wallet-size information card.

In case of an emergency, things should be in place for first responders. “You should have an emergency response kit for you and for your pet,” said Summers. Responders often look for information on the fridge, said Connolly, so that might be a good place to have a copy of the detailed information about one’s pet. There are “I Have a Pet” signs an owner can put in a window that would alert a first responder. (At the end of the program the speakers told COA Director Debbie Thompson that they would send her signs and information cards for interested pet owners.) Connolly recommended having a microchip ID for a pet—and keeping the registration up to date—so the animal can be easily identified should an emergency or disruption cause it to run off.

Wills, trusts, power of attorney

Summers discussed legal documents that plan for the care of a pet upon the owner’s death. A will can give general directions about how the pet will be cared for. An amount of money can be given to the person who will care for the animal. Summers said some things to be considered in determining the amount of money to leave for this person are the age of the pet and maintenance costs, cost of veterinary services, medications, and the occasional services of a pet sitter. The drawback to using a will to plan for a pet’s care, said Summers, is that a will takes time to go through probate court.

Another option is to set up a pet trust and appoint a trustee. An owner cannot leave money directly to a pet, but can use a trust to hold money to be used for the benefit of the pet, under management of the trustee. The trust can be accessed while the owner is still alive but incapacitated by illness.

A durable power of attorney can also be used to make provisions for care of a pet. The person in that role has the authority to use the owner’s money to provide for the animal. Summers emphasized that none of the legal documents contains any details about the owner’s pet, so information on habits, medications, and behavioral issues still need to be written down elsewhere.

The speakers had some final words about planning for a pet’s future care. “Pick a human who won’t ignore your wishes,” said Summers. “A pet is voiceless,” said Connolly. “The owner is responsible for the plan.” 

The program was taped by Harvard Cable TV.

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