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Programs support senior pets, senior clients

Efforts call attention to pets’ need for lifelong care

September 16, 2009
By Edie Lau

After 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 to thinking.

How, he wondered, could he help good clients ease past their fears that their pets might outlive them and have no place to go?

From 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 Ramirez.

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.”

The 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 owner’s wishes.

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.

Amy 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.

The 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.

That 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 commitment today.

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 hospitals.

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 tortoise.

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.

“They saw 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.

That 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.

The 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 medical services.

“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.”

Back at 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.

The 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.”

But for 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 works.

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

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.


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