Who will take your pet when you die?
The question often doesn't have an easy answer, especially for ill or older people headed to residential nursing care or assisted living. During the pandemic, specialized rescue, advocacy and adoption services run by volunteers are trying to fill the void, one pet at a time.
"A lot more people are trying to make plans in advance, which is the best thing to do because, unfortunately, a lot of people wait until they're in hospice or there's a desperate situation," said Amy Shever, founder and director of 2nd Chance 4 Pets in Sacramento, Calif.
The number of pets surrendered to shelters due to caretaker health or death is up from 7.3% in 2009 to 10.2% during the pandemic, according to the Best Friends Network, which surveys thousands of public and private shelters, rescue groups and other animal welfare organizations in all 50 states.
The pets of seniors are often seniors themselves, languishing in shelters or the first to be euthanized after they're declared unadoptable, Shever said. They're routinely given up by relatives who can't take in a dog or cat. The life spans of other pets, such as parrots, are far longer, which sometimes scares off loved ones.
2nd Chance 4 Pets encourages veterinarians and shelters to advise pet owners to plan for their pets' care. It also urges owners to identify a committed caregiver, provide written instructions for a pet's routine and put a financial plan in place.
Another organization, Pet Peace of Mind, works directly with about 250 hospices around the country to provide and train volunteers who care for pets of the seriously and terminally ill, said Dianne McGill, the president and founder in Salem, Ore.
"These specialty volunteers bring pet care knowledge with them so they can do whatever is needed to help," she said. "So they're walking, feeding, playing, cleaning up or helping to arrange a plan for rehoming."
While providing pet care or adoption services may not be top of mind for social workers or nurses, it's a huge emotional issue for patients and their loved ones, McGill said.
"Care workers hear about the issues from family members," she said. "They say, 'My mom is really, really upset about what's going to happen to her pet. I live out of state. I can't help her. How do we get some pet care in place while she's navigating her end-of-life journey or when she passes?' "
Enter angels-on-earth like 79-year-old Kathy Reister.
She adopted a 12-year-old Chihuahua with the help of Tyson's Place Animal Rescue in Holland, Mich. The nonprofit helps people with terminal illnesses find new homes for their pets.
Reister had recently lost her own dog.
"I've never been without a dog since about 1965," said Reister, of Grandville, Mich. "He needs to walk and I need to walk. He's made such a big difference in my life."
Jill Bannik-Brecht founded Tyson's Place about six years ago. It works directly with a pet owner before rehoming becomes an urgent matter, or with family members after a death, using a small network of foster homes.
"I used to work for a high-kill animal shelter, and I knew what happened to the old dogs when they came in," Bannik-Brecht said.
Now, hospices and social workers refer patients to Tyson's Place.
Bannik-Brecht knows of just a few other rescues like hers. Angela Rafuse founded My Grandfather's Cat in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on her grandfather's birthday. He died in 2019 and left behind his grumpy 14-year-old cat, Mackenzie.
Rafuse, who had promised her grandfather she would take Mackenzie, began posting TikTok videos of their adventures.
"Then so many people started sharing stories with us about how their grandparents' cats ended up in shelters and how their grandparents worry about what will happen to their cats or their dogs because there's nowhere to take them," Rafuse said.
After she launched the nonprofit, e-mails asking for help and offering donations rolled in, but she didn't have enough foster homes to meet demand. One of Rafuse's goals is to help keep a pet at home until the final moment.
As for Mackenzie, she's living her best life, hiking and kayaking with Rafuse.
"She's still grumpy," Rafuse said. "She's developed a really special connection with my dad, and I know my dad loves that because she's the last thing he has of his parents."