Have your clients provided for their pets in the event something happens to them? How to start a conversation around this important topic.
Your clients look to you for much more than health advice, especially if you’re an integrative veterinarian. They want to know how to build vitality and well-being for a long and happy life in their pets. In addition, they often need to understand and discuss family dynamics as part of your integrative treatment plan. One area that is still not adequately covered in many of our client conversations is ensuring that if something happens to the client, or the client is no longer able to look after the animal, his or her cherished companions will be cared for. Natural disasters are becoming ever more frequent; financial stresses are escalating; a growing number of people who live alone and work at home have adopted animals; and many elderly people with pets often live alone as well. And people do die.
The AVMA, ASPCA and many legal websites frequently address how to provide for pets once a person dies, and some also address incapacitation. A few help people recognize when they may not be properly caring for their pets, especially as they age.1 Suggestions for preparing for natural disasters can also be found on many websites. Insurance partially addresses the financial stress that pet healthcare can bring, but less frequently discussed are strategies for how you can help clients who truly cannot afford your fees.
LIVING ALONE WITH COMPANION ANIMALS
The area that’s least addressed is what may happen to animals if a person living alone dies or becomes physically or mentally incapacitated, and no one knows there are pets in the home who now have no food or water, and may suffer and die. I have been unable to find anything on the internet about this issue, yet in 2019, an estimated 34.75 million Americans were living in single-person households.2 There has been a huge increase of people working from home during the pandemic. How many have bosses, co-workers, friends or relatives who know they share their homes with pets?
There is plenty of information online about how to live safely when alone,3 some of which includes a discussion of daily caretaking needs for pets — but none of this info mention show to plan for the animals when/if the owner is no longer present. An individual living alone who does not work, or who works virtually, may fall and lie seriously injured or dead for days to weeks before being found. These people may also be injured or taken ill away from home, and perhaps wind up in a coma or be otherwise unable to communicate about their pets waiting for them at home.
TWO EXAMPLES OF WHAT CAN HAPPEN
A few personal experiences have made me very aware of this potential for animal distress. The 50-year-old daughter of a friend of mine lived alone with five dogs. Her mother tended to stop by daily — which was a good thing because one day she walked into find that her daughter had tragically fallen down the steps and broken her neck. Of course, the mom took responsibility for the dogs by taking them in personally or finding them good homes.
In another incident, a relative of mine who was very active on social media, spending many hours a day describing how her dogs were doing, and supporting friends with their families and dogs, went silent for two days. The friends nearest her went to her home to find that she was in need of hospitalization, and looked after the dogs until she came home.
EDUCATING YOUR CLIENTS
How you educate your clients about this issue will depend on your clientele. First of all, do you know how many of them live alone? That may be an important metric for your healthcare recommendations, in addition to safety issues. Next, are you already educating them about pet trust planning? How do you regularly communicate with your clients — by blog, newsletter, online or mailed reminders, waiting room noticeboards or flyers? Even those who don’t live alone may share your recommendations with people they know who do.
You may want to have your technicians initiate this conversation, and note the client’s response in the record, and if they need a follow-up conversation. You could create a packet of support materials, or a page on your website with live links that direct people to more information on these different areas of pet support.
Because this issue has not yet been fully addressed, the following is merely a beginning set of guidelines. Each of you will think of more ways to help ensure the safety and well-being of patients living in different circumstances. Encourage your clients to be creative and find ways that work for them, so it doesn’t feel like an intrusive or onerous task. You could have them share what works on your bulletin board, in your blogs, or on your Facebook page.
We all need reminders to plan for natural disasters. Multiple websites address what is required in order to be prepared. Suggested items that aren’t readily available could be sold by your clinic. Important issues include:
- Being prepared to find a pet lost in a disaster —microchipping, tattoos, ID tags and new technology using GPS, Bluetooth technology and more; once lost, social media and internet sites, flyers and animal communicators can be useful.
- A few basics to remind your clients to have on hand:5,6,7
- Sturdy leashes, harnesses and/or transport carriers
- Food, drinking water, bowls, cat litter/pan and a manual can opener
- Pet bed, favorite toy and blankets if possible
- Pet first aid kit.
3. Attach a waterproof container to the pet’s carrier with the following up-to-date information and items:
- Medications and copies of medical records
- Caretaker contact info
- Contact info of people living far away from the disaster site
- Current pictures and details on personality, favorite toys, games, foods, feeding and other daily schedules.
QUESTIONS TO ASK CLIENTS
- Who knows you live with animal companions? The more there are, the better.
- Family, friends
- People you work with/for
- People your dog plays with
- Mail or food delivery persons
- Do these people interact with you on a daily basis, or every other day? Would they know that something may have happened if they don’t hear from you for two or three days? Do they know you live with pets?
- If you do not routinely communicate with anyone, daily or every other day, set up a regular check-in with a friend. Examples include a smiley face text every AM or PM, a call, or an email to let them know you’re fine.
- Pick a few people to be your pet partners, and be sure to keep them updated on changes in your life and the lives of your animals.
- Have someone nearby with a key to your home, who is willing to be called by others if they are concerned about you.
- Some people have a routine that their neighbors know— if the shades do not rise in the morning, the neighbors check on them.
- Have a sign on the door with the number and species of animals inside. Many people already do this in case of fire or other disaster. (Your clinic could provide these signs, which are often free from the local fire department.)
- Carry a card with your driver’s license/personal ID (maybe your clinic could design a practical card with its logo and contacts) with up-to-date information about who to contact about your pets if something happens to you. This would be very useful if you were in an accident and unconscious for a few days.
- Keep a notebook (maybe accessible online) with details about each animal: photos if there’s more than one pet; personality (are they shy, skittish, etc.); favorite toys, games, foods; care providers, and if possible, a running note on what needs to be done and when — update this regularly. This is also required for pet trusts and disaster preparedness.
INABILITY TO PROPERLY CARE FOR A PET
A related issue necessitating the support of friends, relatives and the community is briefly addressed on websites for seniors, though it’s not just an aging issue.4 Pet parents of any age may develop health issues, and may not initially recognize that they are no longer able to give their pets the attention they need. Examples include:
- Forgetting to feed the animal regularly
- An inability to exercise the pet
- Animals that are defecating or urinating around the house
- An inability to keep the pet groomed sufficiently
Educate your staff to watch for hints that this may be happening, and bring it to your attention. Having a staff person or volunteer who’s interested in helping people find solutions could be beneficial. Create a handout or blog on the topic.
In the last several decades, much has been written about planning ahead for an animal’s care after the guardian dies or is incapacitated. Most importantly, educate your clients to use a trust, not a will to enforce their wishes. Why? A will has to be probated, any and all conflicts resolved, and the estate closed before the wishes and any money in the will can be accessed and followed. This means the animals will be in limbo during that period. In 1990, a section was added to probate code saying that “a trust for the care of a designated domestic or pet animal and the animal’s offspring” was valid. The trustee must follow the owner’s instructions and use the allocated money only for the care of the pet. To best serve your clients, check out your state or provincial pet trust regulations, and which lawyers are familiar with this work.
Several points to share with clients:
- Have money allocated over time, not in one lump sum•Frequently review who will be taking responsibility for the animals
- Have the trustee verify identification of the pets and how often to check on them
- Include detailed instructions — favorite games, toys, food, medical conditions as well as preference for final disposition when the pet dies
- Review and update when the guardian’s death is pending. If no one is willing to be responsible for the pet, local shelters and branches of the SPCA, and even some veterinary colleges, will take responsibility for the animal, placing him with a family and monitoring him with a specific amount donated.
These days, clients struggle to pay for well-being check-ups, and grieve over refusing care because they can’t afford it. Not enough practitioners are researching insurance and suggesting the options and companies that are most fitting for their clientele. New pet insurance companies appear frequently, as do annual reviews of what’s available.
Every veterinarian has donated or discounted services when they can. How else can you help clients who truly cannot afford your fees? Decide if you want to create support in your practice community. Many practices have funds people contribute to that can be used as loans or gifts when needed.
Often, these are instituted by people in honor of their own pets; other times, the clinic promotes it. Internet sites offer fundraising options, often through social media. Various groups and charities offer financial support for local pets, specific breeds or conditions. Your state or local veterinary organization could be nudged to provide educational resource materials for their members’ clients.
Strategizing and staying updated on these areas of your patients’ lives, from birth to death, is well worth the investment of time. We all need reminders to be prepared. Your clients are more likely to take the above prevention steps when given resources and specific actions with instructions. As veterinarians, we can lessen the chance of hearing tragic stories of needless animal suffering. Start with your clinic staff so their pets are protected and they can see if instructions are clear and easy to follow.
- Statista, “Percentage of Single-Person Households in the United States in 2019, By State,” September 2020.Accessed October 20, 2021.