Even if it’s only a fleeting thought, every responsible pet owner has considered the question: What happens to my pets if I’m unable to care for them?
Life-altering events such as job loss, homelessness or a health crisis can befall anyone at any age. But concern about creating a contingency plan for a pet may be even more on the minds of many middle-aged and older Americans—who are both more likely to have chronic conditions or a terminal illness and be pet owners.
Prioritizing a plan for pets’ futures
To pre-empt the possibility their pets could land in a shelter if tragedy strikes, some owners endow trust funds or formalize agreements with relatives or friends to permanently adopt their animals. Other pet owners are simply determined to provide for their animal companions for as long as they can.
Of an estimated 40% of in-home hospice patients who own pets, approximately 15% need outside assistance to care for and eventually rehome their animal companions. And health care workers report that anxiety over the care and future of pets prevents some hospice patients from finding peace before they die.
…anxiety over the care and future of pets prevents some hospice patients from finding peace before they die.
Out of desperation, some older adults even ask about humanely euthanizing their pets after their own death because they’re haunted by the specter of the animal facing homelessness.
As a response to this very real need, a group of medical, veterinary and other professionals created Pet Peace of Mind (PPOM) in 2008.
Keeping patients and pets together when they need each other most
“Especially for patients who are alone,” explains PPOM National Program Manager Christy Bork, “their pets are constant companions, who provide so much comfort and love… Our goal is always to keep the pets and patients together as long as possible and have an adoptive family arranged in advance. That way the pet can seamlessly transition into the new home.”
The Oregon-based nonprofit and its nearly 300 affiliates nationwide offer free services to keep pets and their people together when they need each other most.
“PPOM is very much like music therapy, respite care or any other service the hospital or hospice provides to improve the patient’s quality of life,” Bork said.
To decrease the stress on overwhelmed professional and family caregivers, PPOM affiliates train volunteers to assist with routine pet care, as well as fostering, transportation and even rehoming services.
And the best part? Patients and their families are never billed for the services.
Giving patients and professionals peace of mind by improving the state and fate of pets
Even without a formalized process in place, health care professionals are routinely faced with the challenges of helping terminally ill patients care for and rehome their pets.
“Many hospices and hospitals run ad-hoc programs,” Bork said. “Nurses, social workers, chaplains and other professionals later adopt the pets themselves, but it’s not a sustainable method.”
That’s one reason why Nancy Preheim was determined to bring PPOM to the Mercy Hospice in St. Louis, where she works as the manager of post-acute services. After returning from in-home visits, her staff frequently expressed concerns—such as who’s feeding horses on the property, when a matted dog had last visited the groomer, or what would happen to a parrot after one owner was admitted to assisted living.
“If the patients can’t take care of themselves, they can’t take care of their pets,” she explained.
Besides volunteer labor, Preheim relies upon grants from the Nestle Purina Pet Care Trust Fund and free delivery from online pet suppliers to extend her ability to reach as many patients as possible. Since becoming her region’s only PPOM affiliate in 2019, Preheim has helped 80 patients with the care and/or rehoming of 81 dogs and 58 cats.
Mercy’s PPOM program focuses more on transporting pets to the vet and groomer and providing needed medicines and vaccinations, as well as providing spay/neuter, dental and surgical procedures.
Finding foster and forever homes
As part of their intake procedure, PPOM professionals initiate a discussion about the new patient’s pets, and these conversations sometimes reveal there’s no one to care for or adopt the animals upon the owner’s admission to a nursing home, hospice facility or hospital, or in the case of sudden death.
Rehoming can be particularly difficult if the pets are elderly themselves, come as a bonded pair or require expensive or specialized care. Yet, Preheim still seeks to find a home for every pet and keep them from the shelters, using Mercy’s internal employee communications, social media and rescue search engines, and even networking with local rescues.
Through those connections, she’s found short-term fosters and even permanent placement in- and out-of-state for pets ranging from bonded trio of ancient chihuahuas to a cute kitten, who came from a hoarder’s home.
The rewards of the program will lead Preheim to continue the program even after she retires.
“It’s good for the patient to know you’re going to find a home where their pet will be loved,” she said. “You see the sad side of the patient losing the pet, but you also see the pet bringing happiness to a new family.”
Creating a contingency plan for your pets
The best thing pet owners can do for themselves and their furry, scaly, hooved or feathered companions is to plan ahead. If something were to happen to you (or the pet-loving relative for whom you provide care):
- Who’s going take your pet permanently if necessary?
- Who’s going to provide daily care of your pet short-term if you’re unable?
- Do you have funds available if you want your pet to live at a certain lifestyle?
To answer those questions and more, keep a pet information/emergency folder with all the details someone else would need to care for your pet:
- Contact information for designated caregiver
- Vet information
- Daily routine with medications, feeding amounts and times
- Types of foods, treats, kitty litter and other supplies
- Walk times, exercise regime and other activities
- Frequent hiding places (particularly for cats)
- Any other pertinent information