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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Problem with Pets

For many people pets have become an integral part of their lives, even more so for older adults. Yet, as we age, our pets can present challenges. What happens if you move to a senior-living facility? What if your pet(s) outlive you? Fortunately, there are solutions. 

For many people pets have become an integral part of their lives, even more so for older adults. With children grown and gone, our pets become our constant companions, especially if we live alone. We form bonds with our pets—whether cat, dog, bird or something else—that aren’t easy to break. Yet, as we age, our pets can present challenges. What happens if you move to a senior-living facility? What if your pet(s) outlive you?

Fortunately, many people are facing this issue, so solutions are available, including pet sanctuaries and pet trusts. At the same time, an increasing number of senior-living communities are allowing people to bring their pets with them. It’s an acknowledgment that animals can play a role in keeping people healthy, both emotionally and physically. A Place for Mom offers a list by state of pet-friendly senior living communities .

For those who want to adopt an animal but worry about outliving your companion, consider an older dog or cat. There are many good reasons for doing this, not least of which a more mature animal won’t take the time and energy of a puppy or kitten.

Questions to Ask for Pet Retirement Home

To make sure the pet retirement home is well run, don’t be afraid to ask questions:

1. Safety. Is the facility licensed with animal control? When was the last inspection, and how was its evaluation?

2. Layout. How many animals are currently living there, and how big is the facility? Does it seem like a comfortable environment? Are there enough staffers to spend time with each pet? Or does it look—and sound—overcrowded?

3. Finances. Will the organization share its tax returns and other financial records? You need to make sure that the facility has solid financial footing, so that it doesn’t run out of funds.

4. Medical staff. Does the center have a dedicated veterinarian? How long has it worked with the vet? The facility should have a close and steady relationship with a particular veterinary group, so that the pets get a consistent standard of care.

5. Emergencies. What is the shelter’s emergency evacuation plan, and is it registered with local authorities? Should the pets need to be evacuated because of a fire or a natural disaster, the staff and local responders should have a plan in place.

Source: “Trend Watch: Retirement Homes for Pets,” July 9, 2012, Vetstreet

Finding a Good Home

Pet retirement homes are designed for pet owners who want to make sure their pet is taken care of after they pass on and don’t have a trusted caretaker for their animal. Some of the animal sanctuaries would be the envy of any retirement-community resident. At the Bide-A-Wee Golden Years Retirement Home on Long Island, New York, cats perch on window seats in a greenhouse or use the outdoor area for exercise. To keep them comfortable, machines purify the air, and radiant floor heating ensures their paws will never be cold. Any time Fluffy doesn’t feel good, she has access to full-time health care. For this eternal care, pet owners pay a $10,000 enrollment fee to guarantee their pets’ placement and then set up an endowment to cover future costs. Some sanctuaries base their fee on the cat's life expectancy, while others have a set fee. Some homes shelter only cats and dogs, while others include various pets, such as birds.

Before making any formal arrangements, it’s a good idea to visit the organization to see how animals are cared for; where they are confined; who looks after them; how often they are socialized and exercised; and what policies and procedures exist regarding care at the facility or placement with a new family. Several websites provide listings for pet sanctuaries (Diabella Loves Cats is one). You might also contact the Veterinarian Association or local animal protection agency. (See sidebar, “Questions to Ask for Pet Retirement Home.”)

There are some drawbacks to pet retirement homes. One is that pets may suffer from being in confined spaces (especially those who previously had more room to roam) and may not do well without one-on-one human contact. Also, it’s possible that the organization may suffer financial problems or staffing shortages, so you’ll want one that is well established. Finally, the number of pet retirement homes is small, so it can be hard to find one.

Setting up a Trust

A more popular method for ensuring your pet’s care after you’re gone is a pet trust, a relatively recent development. A pet trust legally provides for the care and maintenance of one or more pets in the event of the owner’s disability or death. Unlike a will, which takes effect only after the person has died, a trust can be used either during a person’s lifetime or after their death. The trust usually involves two people or institutions. The first is the person you select to be caregiver for your pet when you are no longer able. Second is the trustee who manages the trust, allocating funds to the caregiver and making sure the terms of the trust are kept; for example, ensuring that the caregiver is taking your pet for regular veterinary check-ups. You also need to name a beneficiary who would receive any remaining funds not used by the pet trust; this can be the caretaker or an animal welfare organization, for example.

Depending on the state in which you have the trust, it can be in effect for the rest of the animal’s life or for 21 years. Because some animals, such as horses and birds, live longer than 21 years, the first option can be advantageous. Not all states allow pet trusts. The ASPCA provides a Pet Trust State Law Chart that lists states with pet-trust laws. Pet trusts can be set up through an attorney or you can use an online form. The ASPCA teamed up with Legal Zoom to provide a template for a Pet Protection Agreement.

Considerations for Pet Trusts

Choosing a caretaker is the most important decision to make, because this person will be responsible for your pet’s day-to-day care. Experts advise that you make sure to ask the person beforehand if they want to assume this responsibility and to name an alternate in case your first choice can’t take the pet when the time comes or is later unable to care for the pet. Once you decide, stay in touch with the designated caregivers and alternates to make sure their circumstances haven’t changed and they are still able and willing.

If you don’t have friends or family willing to be caretaker, your local humane society or other animal welfare organizations may be willing to help place an animal, but they need to be contacted before setting up the trust to make sure this is a role they can undertake.

NB Pet Trusts provides a list of sanctuaries across the country that will take the responsibility of finding your pet a loving home for a donation or fee. Because NB Pet Trusts has not investigated any of these sanctuaries, it strongly recommends that you carefully evaluate any organization you might designate in your pet trust.

Estimating needed funds: The appropriate amount to leave in the pet trust varies widely, depending on the pet’s age and condition, but you should include food costs, vet bills and costs of administering the trust. Experts warn against setting a figure that’s unreasonably high because this often triggers lawsuits by resentful family members.

Caretaking instructions. Experts recommend being as detailed as possible, specifying everything from favorite food and toys, sleeping arrangements, how many times a day your dog likes to walk and where, and your cat’s favorite playtime activity. The ASPCA recommends creating a Pet Dossier with pertinent information about your pet, which will help the caretaker or institution that ends up with Fluffy or Buddy. It can include:

  • Habits
  • Food preferences
  • Medical conditions and medications taken
  • Veterinary information and records
  • Behavior around other pets/people/children

Advantages of Older Pets

Lastly, if you worry about outliving your pet and want to get a new companion, consider adopting an older animal. The Senior Dogs Project, which works to encourage and facilitate their adoption, lists good reasons to prefer an older pet companion (and could apply just as well to cats or other animals). Older dogs are housetrained, won’t chew through your shoes and furniture, and can focus better and learn more quickly, including what “no” means. Unlike a puppy or kitten, they don’t require your full attention, they know how to get along, how to give you some alone time, let you get a good night’s sleep and recognize when you need some comfort.

Because many people don’t want to adopt older animals, many languish in animal shelters or, more likely, are quickly euthanized. Older pets are on the same path you’re on; think of yourself as extending a hand to a fellow traveler. (See Coffee Break, “Portraits of Aging Animals.”)


“Trend Watch: Retirement Homes for Pets,” July 9, 2012, Vetstreet

“Pet Trusts,” Nolo (Law for All)

“Pet Separation and Elder Care Support,” A Place for Mom

“Providing for Your Pet’s Future Without You,” Humane Society of the United States

“Sanctuaries/Retirement Homes/Rescues,” NB Pet Trusts

“Keep Your Pet's Trust,” Investopedia

“Pet Trust Primer,” ASPCA

The Problem with Pets was the featured in the March Senior Spirit Newsletter.

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior