The United States is a nation of pet lovers. We pamper them, treat them as members of the family and grieve for them when they die. What we don't do is plan for when we won't be there to care for them. That oversight can be a death sentence for adored animal companions left alone by an owner's illness or demise.
"Many of the pets that are in shelters are there because their owners became ill, went into a nursing home, or died without making plans for their care," says Lisa Rogak, author of PerPETual Care: Who Will Look After Your Pet If You're Not Around? (Litter-ature Inc.). "And without a plan in place, the majority of these much loved, healthy animals are euthanized."
In a study by the Buehler Center on Aging at Northwestern University, researchers found that fewer than 2 percent of those surveyed had made legal provisions for funds to support their pets. Most assumed that a family member or neighbor would take care of their pet after the owner's death. Animal experts call that assumption the ultimate pet owner denial.
"In reality, pets may end up at overextended animal shelters, where they will be put down if not adopted within a certain amount of time," Rogak said. "As awful as it sounds, that's a good outcome. I've seen pets abandoned, dumped and worse."
"Some shelters won't even take older animals, and if they do, the chances for adoption are not good," says Patricia Kauffman, manager of the Humane Society of the United States' Humane Legacy program.
To help pet owners prepare for the unexpected, the society has compiled a kit, "Providing for Your Pet's Future Without You," that includes forms and sample language to help design plans to provide financially for your pet and outline possibilities for future care.
Options include finding a permanent caretaker or making arrangements with a pet retirement home or sanctuary that specializes in long-term pet care. A few veterinary schools, including Purdue and Texas A&M, have perpetual pet-care programs, but the price tag can be high.
In the confusion of an unexpected illness, accident or death, pets may be overlooked. Pets are often discovered in the person's home days after the tragedy. To prevent this, the Humane Society offers these suggestions:
* Find at least two responsible friends or relatives who will be temporary emergency caregivers if something unexpected happens to you. Give them keys to your home; feeding and care instructions; the name of your veterinarian; and information about provisions you have made for your pet.
* Make sure neighbors, friends and relatives know how to reach emergency caregivers.
* Carry a wallet "alert card" listing the names and phone numbers of your pet caregivers; post signs inside your front and back doors with the same information.
Korky Vann wrote this for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
For more information
To receive the free kit: "Planning For Your Pet's Future Without You," e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call 800-808-7858 or write the Humane Society of the United States, Major & Planned Gifts, 2100 L St. N.W., Washington, DC 20037. Include your name, address and publication title.