December 17, 2014

Pet Guardianship: What Happens When Your Animals Outlive You?

I ended up in the ER on a Sunday evening last month. While I was facing a potentially serious health crisis, there was one thing I didn’t worry about: my dog, Alki, and Grace the Cat were provided for. Sort of. That’s what the human-animal bond, my concept of multi-species families, includes: taking care of them.

Truth is, I have long since put estate plans in effect for my animals, with rigorous guidelines on who holds the money for their lifetime care and who gets to decide where they go. Included in that: the personalities and needs of each animal, so even my closest friends would know exactly what I know about my animal family.

But here’s one thing I didn’t have: I didn’t have a card in my wallet that would point emergency workers or the police to my home to see to my animals in case the unthinkable happened to me.

The unthinkable does happen, as we all know. Whether it’s a natural event, from weather to earthquake, to a car accident or illness—or even, say, being stranded on the freeway in a sudden snow storm, which has happened several times in the last few years in Seattle, of all places—what will happen to your animals when you’re not there to care for them?

Yes, trusted neighbors and I share house keys, so eventually they would have checked on my kids, assuming they thought to check on me. But how long is eventually? When you’re the only human in the house, like I am, the risks go up—for me, yes, because the death rate of singles is far higher than others simply because everybody else has someone around when they, say, have a heart attack and pass out, or anaphylactic shock sets in, or, well, when the ‘downs’ of life suddenly wipe out the ‘ups.’

I wrote about this issue last year in my post: If they die before you do: protecting your animal family. Just today I found a great article online (at nbcnews.com) that people should know about. It talks about how Superstorm Sandy pointed out the urgent need for estate planning for pets—as if we hadn’t learned that in other events in history, from freak snowstorms to earthquakes. Or as I was reminded during my trip to the ER—when we discover we’re all too mortal.

I was lucky that a good friend was home that night and saw me through my trip to the ER. When I got home at 1 a.m., my dog and cat were anxiously pacing and whining at the door. If I hadn’t come home that night, either because of a hospital stay (which almost happened) or my death, my friend would have been able to step in. But we don’t always have time to call a friend.

What I liked about this article on estate planning is the idea of a pet card in your wallet that identifies your animals and alerts responders that they will need to be cared for if you can’t. I once knew someone who slipped and fell in the grocery store and ended up in emergency surgery for a shattered leg: it was two days before she was alert enough to call someone to take care of her dog.

Two days.

So wake up, people. Put that card in your wallet—that night, the people in the ER would have found mine and sent someone to take care of my kids (well, at least it would have been possible, if they had looked, and cared, and acted, and we never know about that). Put your animals in your will. Give someone a key to your place.

Create an emergency backup plan. Sometimes knowing people, having a community, is fun. And sometimes it can make frightened animals feel better, and even save their lives.

Animals are families. Take care of them.

© 2012 Robyn M Fritz

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