No one likes to think about something happening to their pet...but what if something were to happen to you? As loving pet owners, we all spend a lot (probably too much) time making our pets' lives comfortable and fulfilling. It's easy to forget about the very real possibility that something will happen to us, not our pets. Unfortunately, failing to prepare for this outcome ultimately means our beloved pets will pay the price.
What's the Worst That Could Happen?
Young, healthy pet owners rarely think about outliving their pets. That's a mistake. Any number of things can an do befall pet owners without any prior warning. A tragic accident, a life-altering illness, or even incarceration can suddenly and immediately take you away from your pet. Do you have a plan for her care? Remember that planning ahead is not just about imagining your own death. There are plenty of life circumstances that could make you unable to care for your pet.
Mistakes Pet Owners Make
The biggest mistake, of course, is failing to plan for your pet's future at all. But it's a nuanced issue, and one few pet owners have fully explored. Here are a few of the ways well-meaning pet owners fall short when it comes to preparation:
- Assuming everything's settled after a casual conversation with a friend about taking care of your pet if "something happens"
- Assuming there won't be any contention among your friends, family, or partner over who gets your pet
- Failing to make it known in writing what your wishes are for your pet's care
- Not setting aside funds for your pet's care if something were to happen to you
- Setting aside money for your pet but failing to clearly designate a guardian
More than half-a-million pets are surrendered to shelters each year because their owners passed away without plans for their care. Don't let your pet be part of this statistic.
What Can You Do to Protect Your Pet?
It's actually pretty straightforward. There are several components to consider: Create an Emergency Plan - This is your in-a-car-accident-and-might-not-make-it plan. Designate someone to take care of your pet immediately in case of emergency. It's important to note this person does not need to be the permanent caretaker for your pet! It should be someone who lives close to you, reliable, and preferably familiar to your pet. Neighbors, co-workers, close friends, or family members make good options. Be sure they have instructions on feeding and medication and a key to your home. These instructions should be in writing and you should have a clear conversation with the designated guardian where they agree to this responsibility. If anything changes (i.e. the person moves away, you're no longer close, etc.), update the plan! Do not forget to list this person on your "Emergency Contact" lists. Do Your Legwork - There are a few things you can do right this second to protect your pet if an emergency should occur. The first is to save one or more contacts in your phone as "ICE", which stands for In Case of Emergency. Police and medical personnel know to look for ICE and to call it in the event you're unable to speak. It's smart to carry a Pet Alert card in your wallet and in your car. These simple cards tell anyone who finds them that you have a pet at home who needs to be attended to. It's also a good idea to put a Pet Inside sticker near your front door (on the outside) so anyone looking for you at home knows your pet may be home. This could be particularly important if you have an accident at home and no one even knows to be looking for you. The ASPCA recommends putting together a Pet Dossier - a document containing any permanent information about their health, habits, feeding, veterinarian, etc. - and keeping it with all your important papers. You might also want to give copies to your veterinarian, groomer, and chosen guardian(s). Designate a Long-Term Guardian - This person may or may not be the same guardian responsible for your emergency plan. If it's not, it's important you communicate this to your emergency caregiver and give them instructions for contacting your pets' permanent guardian. Choosing the long-term guardian for your pet should be done carefully, considering everything from lifestyle to other pets in the home. Never make assumptions! Be sure you and the person you choose are on the same page about their agreement to care for your pet. As an extra precaution, it's smart to list this person in any legal documents (especially your will) to solidify the arrangement, particularly if confusion among your friends, family, and/or partner is likely. Talk to an Estate Planning Attorney - If you have a pet and don't have a will, you should! An estate planning attorney can help you formalize your long-term arrangements for your pet. They can also work with you to set up what's called a Pet Trust, an increasingly common savings vehicle designed specifically to provide for your pet's financial needs if something happens to you. You can set up a pet trust to be accessible by you and anyone you list to be your pet's caregiver(s), and to only be used for pet-related expenses. In the short term, you should put away at least $1,000-$2,000 in the trust to provide for your pet's immediate and short-term needs. (What if you're in a coma for six months and then recover?) Long term, you'll want to put as much money in the trust as you think your pet will need over the course of her life. Think about food costs, toys, grooming supplies, bedding, and most importantly, veterinary care. You want your pet to be as comfortable and well cared-for with her new guardian as she was with you! And remember that if you have particular wishes for your pet - that she keeps seeing her usual veterinarian, that she is only fed grain-free food, etc. - your attorney can help you make those official requirements for your new guardian as well.
If you have questions about creating a long-term plan for your pet, talk to your veterinarian. He's probably seen more than his fair share of complicated, avoidable issues regarding pet care after an emergency.