Information is readily available regarding options for the care of animals upon the death of their owner. Most opportunities involve the services of an attorney and sufficient funds to provide permanent care. In contrast is the hospice patient surviving on a fixed income with minimal emotional support and increasing anxiety about their pets’ wellbeing. The hospice professional must be prepared for both possibilities, with resources and perseverance to assist patients in providing a comfortable future for their beloved companions.
Safe Passage Urns noted, “Every single year 1.3 million pets enter animal shelters due to the death of their owners. Of these 1.3 million pets, around 650,000 are euthanized.” Terminal illness is not the only reason for this staggering statistic. Natural disasters, sudden death, and crime leave animals in jeopardy—as evidenced when Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas. O’Kane reported, “A woman in the Bahamas says she has taken in nearly 100 dogs displaced by Hurricane Dorian. Chella Phillips, who runs Voiceless Dogs of Nassau, a small organization aimed at helping stray dogs in the capital city, said she took 97 dogs into her house as the hurricane slammed into the island on Sunday.” Four weeks later, the fate of most owners remains unknown.
There are simple, cost-free ways to prepare for an emergency and help pets receive care if a crisis occurs. People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offers a free Companion Animal Planning Packet to ensure that owners are thorough in protecting their pets. Window decals, wallet cards and emergency contact cards are recommended tools. “It is crucial to maintain files with current information about each of your pets and the arrangements you made for their care—both short-term and long-term. This information should also be shared with your pets’ temporary caregivers and permanent guardians.” A written summary of the animal’s date of birth, description, habits, health, feeding schedule, and medications is helpful and can be updated as needed. Willingness to plan for a crisis is the first step for the terminally ill patient in accepting that a companion animal will one day need a new home.
Receiving hospice services may mean there is time to carefully plan for the future of a pet. For the individual with financial resources, hiring an attorney experienced in the legalities of pet planning is highly recommended.
The attorney can outline the ways to protect pets and the assets reserved for animal care. Appointing a guardian, assigning a rescue organization, or creating a formal will or trust are expensive, but viable options. Organizing and funding the ability for your pets to remain in your home after your death and until their death is plausible, yet complicated. The capacity to afford formal planning is both a luxury and an emotional, contemplative journey. It can provide security and peace of mind for the pet owner but does not diminish the grief felt at the reality of leaving a companion behind.
The patient who must make plans without an attorney may lean heavily on the hospice professionals to offer guidance, seek resources, and create alternatives where none exist. While it is suggested to have a short-term solution in place before the long-term solution can be enacted, hospice will always serve a population with neither. The absence of a support system may place a heavy burden on the Interdisciplinary Team. However, the compassion of hospice professionals ensures that placing a patient in a nursing home without rehoming the companion animal would be an anomaly.
Hospice team members can be relentless in the effort to locate a home for patient’s a companion animal. In one situation, an elderly man was alone and facing death, unable to relax, sleep, or allow physical comfort due to his anxiety about his aging chihuahua, Benny. His social worker was diligent in reaching out to neighbors, community partners, and her own family in the attempt to find a new home for his dog. The patient refused to take his pain medication until he knew that his beloved pet would have a new family. Finally, she brought the issue to a social work meeting and a coworker agreed to care for Benny as a short-term solution. After a tearful goodbye, the patient’s work was completed, and he died two days later.
Hospice professionals who are committed to finding new homes for companion animals may engage in the following strategies:
- Partnering with local shelters, humane societies, and rescue centers is good practice and can pave the way for immediate help in an acute situation. Seeking out no-kill shelters can provide a higher level of relief for both patient and hospice worker alike. While each shelter has a standard fee for surrendering an animal, many will either waive or reduce the fee in an end of life situation.
- Creating a work group or committee within the hospice organization is a creative way to foster problem solving and reduce stress on the team. The volunteer department is a strong resource and a team member could offer to provide education and guidance if a committee is formed.
- Designing a bulletin board for the office or waiting area to post information about animals in need.
- Enticing community partners to join in the effort may yield positive results.
Many communities are fortunate to have organizations whose mission is to help sick or terminally ill pet owners care for their companion animals pre-death and plan for the rehoming of pets after the owner’s death. For example, 2nd Chance 4 Pets is a nonprofit organization staffed by volunteers throughout the United States and beyond. As an advocacy group, they provide education and resources to pet owners, veterinarians, and animal care organizations to reduce the number of companion animals euthanized due to the death or disability of their owners. 2nd Chance 4 Pets offers a wealth of knowledge for hospice professionals to facilitate discussions with patients facing difficult choices. This organization offers solutions for those with or without financial resources. (See https://www.2ndchance4pets.org/).
Another organization, Pet Peace of Mind Program, partners with hospices in 37 states to sustain the relationship between patients and their companion animal until they are separated by death. This organization acknowledges that pets are often considered essential family members and are an important part of the hospice patient’s support network. These companion animals can help to reduce their owner’s isolation, loneliness, and depression. Additionally, the program offers financial assistance if needed: if the patient leaves the home to receive medical or nursing home care, boarding can be arranged at no cost to the patient. Upon the patient’s death, the program will rehome the companion animal. (See https://petpeaceofmind.org/).
The most uncomfortable and painful option for patients to consider is euthanizing their pets. For pets with high anxiety, extreme shyness, or medical/special needs, euthanasia may be the most humane decision for an owner to make. It may be too difficult for a pet to endure surrendering to a shelter setting after residing in a home. During 2019, the media sensationalized stories of owners opting to euthanize their companion animals so they may be buried with them upon death. For patients who are considering euthanizing their pets—motivated solely by the best interests of their animals—the hype of these media examples can increase their guilt, worry, and fear of judgement. Hospice professionals have an opportunity to validate their patients’ decision in a non-judgmental, compassionate manner and work with them to finalize plans.
Some hospice patients may prefer to wait and euthanize their companion animals after they have death. It is important for hospice professionals to ask their patients about the disposition plan for the companion animal’s ashes. For patients who lack a support network, the hospice professional may decide to enlist the services of a volunteer from a local shelter to coordinate the event.
The dilemma of providing homes for animals with terminally ill owners strikes the heart of people and yet, with overcrowded animal shelters and breeders advertising on the internet, it seems that anyone who wants a pet already has one. For the hospice worker committed to helping patients achieve the most peaceful death possible, the companion animal must become a priority. It can be frustrating, emotionally painful work and require a team of creative people collaborating together to reach the patients’ goal. Since hospice situations are often unpredictable and may unfold rapidly, assisting the patient in moving forward quickly in regard to the beloved animal is in everyone’s best interests.
Safe Passage Urns. (n.d.). What to Do With a Pet When the Owner Dies? Safe Passage Urns. Retrieved from https://safepassageurns.com/blogs/blog/what-to-do-with-a-pet-when-the-owner-dies?_pos=1&_sid=6bc91bb96&_ss=r
O’Caine, Kaitlin. (2019, September 3). Hurricane hero: Woman rescues nearly 100 dogs, taking them into her home during Dorian. CBS News. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hurricane-dorian-woman-rescues-nearly-100-dogs-nassau-bahamas-taking-them-into-her-home-during-hurricane-dorian/
Reach Out Rescue. (n.d.) Who Will Care for Your Pets When You Cannot. Reach Out Rescue. Retrieved from http://www.reachoutrescue.org/info/display?PageID=10224
AMDA in the News. (2019, June 12). Hospices Adapt to Support Patients Without Family Caregivers. AMDA. Retrieved from https://paltc.org/newsroom/hospices-adapt-support-patients-without-family-caregivers
2nd Chance 4 Pets. (n.d.). Resources. 2nd Chance 4 Pets. Retrieved from https://www.2ndchance4pets.org/resources.html
Lotz, Kristina. (n.d.). Pet Peace of Mind Program Helps Hospice Patients With Pets. Iheartdogs.com. Retrieved from https://iheartdogs.com/pet-peace-of-mind-program-helps-hospice-patients-with-pets/