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What to Do When a Pet Owner Gets Sick or Passes Away

Updated on July 18, 2017
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Sadie teaches speaking and leadership skills to women who want to have a better relationship with others and with themselves.

Do you care for a sick or elderly family member who owns a cat or dog? Learn about some of the compassionate options available to ensure that a family pet is cared for when life circumstances change.

"When you are gone, who will take care of us?" If you love your pets, make plans in advance for how and by whom your pets will be taken care of if you pass away.
"When you are gone, who will take care of us?" If you love your pets, make plans in advance for how and by whom your pets will be taken care of if you pass away.

There are many articles and resources available to help people come to terms with the death of a beloved pet. Because a cat or dog will usually only live, on average, between 10 – 18 years, most people expect to outlive their pets. Sadly though, sometimes people do pass away before their pets. Other times, a sudden illness or injury makes it difficult for the pet owner to care for their furry friend.

If you are the caregiver for an elderly relative or have friends who are experiencing long-term or short-term health problems, you may be relieved to know that there are options available to look after pets whose guardians can no longer care for them.

Many health experts agree that people who have pets tend to lead happier, healthier lives. Pets provide unconditional love and loyal companionship. Dogs provide a reason to get out of the house for some exercise. Getting together and socializing with other dog lovers reduces isolation. Because dogs often respond to the presence of unknown people approaching their territory, they can also help seniors feel more secure in their own homes. A cat can provide warmth and affection. Gentle stroking animal companions helps lower blood pressure. Furry friends can reduce stress and alleviate pain by boosting a pet carer’s outlook.

Thanks to the numerous positive benefits listed above, many caregivers also believe that keeping a family pet with its owner is worth the extra care that may be needed to address the animal’s needs. A family member who is happier and more relaxed is easier to care for. As well, having an animal around the house can provide caregivers with a bit of companionship. Going for a walk with the dog, or sitting quietly with the cat, can reduce stress levels and feelings of caregiver fatigue and isolation.

Before you get a dog, you can't quite imagine what living with one might be like; afterward, you can't imagine living any other way.

— Caroline Knapp
When a pet owner dies suddenly, animals often end up being surrendered to animal shelters when there is no one else to take care of them. Before taking a deceased person's pet to a shelter, find out if friends and family can give the pet a good home.
When a pet owner dies suddenly, animals often end up being surrendered to animal shelters when there is no one else to take care of them. Before taking a deceased person's pet to a shelter, find out if friends and family can give the pet a good home. | Source

When someone becomes ill, or grows old, as we all do, responsibility for taking care of a pet often shifts to the family caregiver.That’s why it’s important to have a plan in place for when someone can’t take care of their pet, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. If a pet owner needs to move into an assisted living residence they may not be able to take their pet with them, even though they are still well enough to care for the animal on their own.

Here are some things for caregivers to consider when a pet guardian becomes ill or passes away.

  • Is there someone who can look after the pet? If a pet owner is hospitalized for an indefinite period of time, can a friend or family member care for the pet in the owner's home through daily visits? If one person can’t do it all, can multiple family members or friends help out on a rotating basis? If family members can’t care for the pet, due to geography or work and family commitments of their own, can a pet sitting service be hired to assist?
  • Can a friend or family member look after the pet in their own home? If a pet owner has to move into a care facility that doesn’t allow pets, knowing that the pet is being adopted “within the family” can provide some level of comfort that the pet will be looked after. By adopting from within, the pet owner can maintain some tangential contact with their pet when the new pet guardian shares stories and photos and updates.
  • Be sure to ask about residency rules when exploring extend-care options for seniors. Remember, some senior care facilities may allow pets to stay with their owners, so do check this option out before a pet is given up for adoption.

No matter how hard a caregiver tries, sometimes a pet will need to be taken to a shelter and put up for adoption. If this is the case, be sure to check with the shelter before surrendering the animal and ask about the adoption process (i.e.,: screening, interim care, and what will happen if the pet doesn’t find a “forever family”). Knowing that an animal will not be euthanized may make it easier for a pet owner to cope with giving up their beloved friend.

Some animal welfare agencies have programs available to provide peace of mind to pet owners worried about what will happen when they die. For example, The BC SPCA Pet Survivor Care Program was designed to help ensure that an animal’s future needs are taken care of should anything happen to their owner. There are several enrollment options available, depending on the level of pre-planned care that the pet owner wants to arrange. For example, you may be able to set up a plan that ensures:

  • Updated files will be kept on your (family member's) pets (i.e.; their medical needs, personality, diet)
  • Temporary foster pet care will be available in the event of hospitalization or temporary incapacity
  • Potential adopters will be screened ensuring the pet is placed in a happy home

These are just a few of the many benefit available through the Pet Survivor Care Program. Ask your local animal shelter if they have a similar program.

Acknowledgements

What About the Family Pets? by Barbara Small, Senior Living Magazine

The British Columbia SPCA and the Pet Survivor Care Program

After a pet guardian passes away, finding a loving. forever family make take time, but it is worth it!
After a pet guardian passes away, finding a loving. forever family make take time, but it is worth it!

© 2014 Sadie Holloway

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