September 16, 2009
Programs support senior pets, senior clients
Efforts call attention to pets’ need for lifelong care
By: Edie Lau
For The VIN News Service
having to euthanize another elderly animal and hearing yet another
owner say she was too old to get a new dog, Dr. Raymond J. Ramirez got
How, he wondered, could he help good clients ease past their fears that their pets might outlive them and have no place to go?
this question was born “Love and Life Goes On,” a new service at
Lakeview Veterinary Clinic in East Peoria, Ill., through which owners
need not worry what will happen to their animal companions should they
die or become too infirm to tend to their needs.
“What we say is
that we’ll take care of your dog or cat for you if there comes a point
where you can’t take care of them any more. No questions asked,” said
It’s a huge commitment, but Ramirez sees it as a way to
help his elderly clients responsibly continue enjoying pet
companionship. It is also smart business. The clinic he bought a year
and a half ago is located in a region with an older population. “If my
practice is to remain a good, viable practice,” he reasoned, “I need to
figure out ways to keep my existing good clients or attract new ones.”
question of how best to support senior pet owners and their pets is a
familiar one for many practitioners and rife with ethical land mines.
In an online discussion on the Veterinary Support Personnel Network
(VSPN), a division of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN),
technicians spoke of their clinics being asked to euthanize healthy
pets when their owners were no longer able to care for them, or when
the owner died. Some techs said their clinics’ policy was not to
euthanize healthy animals; others felt an obligation to honor an
2nd Chance 4 Pets, a
non-profit animal-care advocacy organization in California, estimates
that half a million pets are euthanized in the United States each year
because their owners neglected to plan properly for the animals’
ongoing care. The organization is dedicated to educating pet owners on
how to provide for their pets during the animals’ lifetime.
Shever, who founded the all-volunteer organization in 2004 and serves
as its director, said she is against euthanizing healthy animals just
because their owners have died or become disabled. “I think it’s
unethical, and I think it’s ignorant,” she said, arguing that someone
else out there could be an equally capable and loving owner.
issue is relevant for all pet owners, not just seniors. Shever was
motivated to establish 2nd Chance 4 Pets after the deadly World Trade
Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Eight hundred animals in New York
City were left behind,” Shever said. “The average age of the owners was
in their 30s.
“This is something that every responsible pet
owner needs to think about,” she realized. “We don’t know how our
destiny will play out.”
2nd Chance 4 Pets urges pet owners to,
at the very least, get an agreement from someone — be it a family
member, a friend, a pet-sitter, or a fellow pet owner from the local
dog park — to take care of their pet or pets if something should happen.
agreement is something that should be discussed and renewed
periodically, “because people’s lives change,” Shever said. Someone who
agreed 10 years ago to take your pooch might be unable to honor that
More formal arrangements are another option.
According to 2nd Chance 4 Pets, a growing number of states permit
residents, as part of their estate planning, to establish trust funds
for pet care.
Shever noted that some veterinary schools also
offer “perpetual pet care” programs that provide for the lifelong needs
of pets whose owners have died or become disabled. These programs tend
to be expensive, requiring payments by the owners on the order of
$25,000 or $30,000.
At Lakeview Veterinary Clinic, the security
owner Ramirez is offering his clients is, in some respects,
institutionalizing what’s been a long-time practice at many veterinary
Mary Jean Calvi, a licensed veterinary technician in
upstate New York with 12 years in the profession, has acquired a
menagerie through clients who couldn’t keep their pets any longer.
Specifically: four dogs, six cats, eight birds, four rabbits and a
The most recent acquisition is a ring-necked dove that
belonged to an elderly client who needed medical treatment but delayed
because of her many animal charges.
“(She) refused to enter the
hospital because she was concerned for the future of her pets,” Calvi
wrote on the VSPN discussion board. “She knew that many of them were
difficult to place because of who they were: a pit bull, several older
dogs, a diabetic, older cat, a crow, a dove .... The entire staff
stepped in and we each took in one of them so the client would allow
them to admit her to the hospital. She died a few days later and most
of the animals are STILL with the people who offered to take them in. I
got the dove.”
Added Calvi in an interview, “Anyone who’s ever
worked in an animal hospital knows, you inevitably bring home an
animal. It’s an unspoken law.”
Besides providing for the
lifetime needs of pets, one aim of Ramirez’s plan is to provide his
clients with continued animal companionship. Talking with directors of
retirement housing in his community, Ramirez heard of instances in
which pets apparently prolonged their owners’ lives.
that if someone came in with a pet, that it was pretty quickly after
the pet passed away that the person (also) passed away,” Ramirez said.
“They didn’t have anything to live for. You need something to look
forward to every day.”
Jennifer Witzel, a licensed veterinary
technician in Marshfield, Wisc., has witnessed the power of pet
companionship in her own family. Her husband’s grandmother, at age 80,
adopted a “poodley mix guy” from the local humane society. The
grandmother is subject to bouts of depression and has told her family
that needing to feed the dog and take him out gives her a reason to get
up every day.
“She’s said many times that (without him), she
would have thrown in the towel long before,” Witzel said. Her husband’s
grandmother is now 97.
But some adoption agencies decline to
work with elderly would-be pet owners, out of concern for the animals’
long-term welfare. In Washington state, Kelly Nelson, owner and founder
of a pet-adoption and foster-care organization called Kindred Souls
Foundation, remembers being contacted by a woman who was trying to find
a pair of cats for her mother. “She was having trouble finding an
organization to adopt to her because she’s 80,” Nelson said.
got Nelson thinking about impediments to pet ownership for seniors and
ways to overcome them. From that thinking arose Senior Companion Program, which matches people aged 62 and older with cats or dogs age
10 and older. Kindred Souls pays for the food, cat litter and medical
services for each animal for the rest of the animal’s life. Each
animal/caregiver pair is assigned a volunteer case manager who takes
care of delivering food and litter to the home and can provide
transportation to veterinary appointments.
new program, initially supported by a budget of $10,000 for up to 10
animals, has so far matched a handful of senior cats with senior
caregivers. Nelson said much of the work Kindred Souls does is possible
because of its relationship with Chambers Creek Veterinary Hospital in
Lakewood, Wash., which provides the foundation with free and discounted
“That’s our pro bono; that’s our cause,” said
Dr. Ann Marie Thiessen, who serves as Kindred Souls Foundation’s
medical director. “We feel so privileged to be able to help in whatever
way we can.”
Noting that many adoptive owners continue to bring
the animals to Chambers Creek for care at their regular prices,
Thiessen said, “It’s a symbiotic relationship, as well.”
Lakeview Veterinary Clinic, Ramirez said he doesn’t anticipate being
overwhelmed with the pets of clients who turn them over to him. The
program is so new that no client has yet taken up the offer.
subject of death, whether a pet’s or a person’s, is obviously touchy.
Ramirez has found that those clients whose pets have already died and
who have decided that that pet will be the last are perhaps the least
receptive to the invitation.
“If they’ve gone down the path and
made the decision, I think us coming in with that suggestion is not
likely to change their mind,” Ramirez said. “They’ve mentally made it
so it’s not fun anymore, as a defense mechanism.”
clients whose pets are still doing well, the idea seems to be gaining
traction. Ramirez said he will continue to tweak his approach until it
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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