If Something Happens to You, What Happens to Your Pets? Learn How to Plan for Them

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If something happens to you and you can't take care of your dog, consider setting up a trust, designating a caregiver or looking for an animal sanctuary that will take your pet.

If something happens to you, what will happen to your pets?

It’s a question many of us think about, at least briefly. But all too often, we don't follow through and make plans. We assume that a comment made in passing to a friend about taking care of our animals is a firm agreement or that, because we are young and healthy (or just one or the other), we have plenty of time to figure it out.

We’re not just talking about planning in case you pass away before your pets do. What happens if you are hospitalized for an extended period of time and can’t care for your pets or contact someone to step in? How about if you’re traveling in an area where communication is unreliable and your return is delayed? Is there someone you could rely on to take care of your pets? And would they know what to do?

A Matter of Life and Death

If you haven't made plans for your pets for whatever reason, you could be placing your pets in a life-or-death situation — literally.

“It’s simple,” Amy Shever, director of nonprofit awareness group 2nd Chance 4 Pets, says. “If a pet owner has not planned for the possibility of their pets outliving them, there’s a risk that the pets will end up in a shelter and may or may not find a new family to care for them. More than 500,000 pets are surrendered to U.S. shelters every year simply because pet owners passed away and made no plans for their pets to receive continued care.”

And even if those pets are lucky enough to be re-homed — not exactly a guarantee, as pets who’ve spent their lives in a comfy home don’t always flourish in a shelter environment — the time they spent in the shelter took space away from other homeless pets who might not have the same fortuitous fate.

Three Steps to a Plan

Shever and her organization encourage owners to take three simple steps: First, identify caregivers; next, prepare written instructions regarding your pets’ care; finally, set up a fund.

The biggest mistake Shever sees pet owners make is within that first step: when people assume a friend or relative will take over the care of their pets. “Pet owners need to step out of their comfort zone and have the conversation with potential backup caregivers,” she says. “They should make 100 percent certain that someone will take over the care of their pets should that ever become necessary. We highly recommend that, at the very minimum, every responsible pet owner identify and confirm one individual who will commit to providing care and love to a pet owner’s pets should the pet owner pass away or become too ill to care for their pets.”

Written instructions should be thorough, including everyday details (medication, food), as well as veterinary information, health history and other helpful details. (If you need a little guidance, check out this free workbook.) And it’s not just what you say that’s important — it’s also how you provide that information. Saving a copy on your computer or filing it away isn’t likely to be immediately helpful to anyone but you, so you should always have an updated hard copy somewhere obvious and handy. Each time you update your instructions, send a copy to your pet’s potential caregivers or make sure they know where to find it.

In addition to those written instructions, 2nd Chance 4 Pets suggests having an emergency ID card prominently displayed in your home, so that, in the event of an emergency during which you’re unable to give direction regarding your pets, emergency personnel know who to contact and what to do with your animals, even if that's just letting a neighbor know what's happened.

Setting aside money for your pets may not be considered absolutely necessary in all cases, but it certainly makes life easier for the person taking on the care of your pets. More than 40 states have pet trust laws or statutes in place, and even if a law is not in place, you can still create a traditional pet trust with your attorney — that’s effective in all 50 states.

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