One of the most heartbreaking aspects of being a pet owner is knowing when it’s time for a beloved dog or cat to go to a new home. Elderly owners facing placement in residential facility or those with terminal illnesses have advance notice and can often find a person that they trust with their pet’s welfare. But when the sole caretaker of a pet dies suddenly or with short warning, confusion ensues. Strapped with the burden of notifying the deceased’s friends and family members and planning funeral arrangements, the last thing on the next-of-kind’s mind is finding a suitable long-term home for a loved one’s cherished pet.
If you experience the urge to rehome the pet whose owner has died, the most important thing to remember is that pets – from herds of livestock right down to the inhabitants of a goldfish bowl – are property. Only the executrix of the deceased’s will can legally decide what happens to the pet. If that person is not you, you have no legal authority to remove the pet from the home without the approval of the person named by the deceased to carry out his or her final wishes. However, if you are that person, there are several things to keep in mind during the rehoming process.
Several prospective candidates might gladly offer to take in a cat or dog for sentimental reasons. This may seem like a valid reason on first blush, but unlike a picture, necklace or other keepsake, a pet is a living, breathing being that requires much attention and physical care. Be particularly cautious of the first-time pet owner who has never expressed an interest in having a pet or who has indicated in the past that they don’t favor dogs or cats (as the case may be). After the period of mourning is over, they might find themselves saddled with a financial and emotional burden that they didn’t fully anticipate–and that no longer evokes feelings of closeness to the deceased. You might even be one of these people. If you feel as though you should take in your loved one’s cat or dog, ask yourself the hard question: Do I really want this pet?
The first impetus may be to assume that the person who already has a dog or cat would gladly welcome another addition to the family. Again, tread carefully! Even the most devoted animal lover knows his or her limits when it comes to time and money. Also, if the deceased’s pet is an only pet, she may fare poorly when integrated with another animal. So before putting Fluffy in the carrier and delivering her to the doorstep of second cousin you just know will take in another cat, make sure that you engage in a heart-to-heart conversation. Make sure that the person you choose as the pet’s new owner has thought the decision through and that the pet will be a welcome addition to the house-hold.
Make sure that that all shots are up to date and that the pet is in good health. But the elderly pet or one with ongoing health issues may experience a hard time finding a for-ever home. If you know or suspect that a new owner may incur expenses that they normally wouldn’t with a younger or healthier pet, it might be a good idea to set up a “trust fund” for Fido so that veterinary expenses can be paid down the line. When re-homing the pet, it’s also common courtesy to provide a new owner with all of the things the pet needs: bed, litter box, food, toys, and flea and other medical treatments.
Finally, don’t discount foster homes. A person close to the deceased may be willing to home the pet temporarily while you search for a forever owner. But make sure you set a reasonable time limit for finding the pet’s permanent home and start looking without delay. A prolonged “temporary” placement might cause the foster owner to feel taken advantage of and breed feelings of ill-will between you and friends and family members of the deceased.
Rehoming a pet after an owner dies is never easy–for the person rehoming or for the pet. The last thing you want is to wonder, “Did I pick the right person?” or even worse, to have the pet end up in a shelter when it’s no longer wanted. Getting it right the first time ensures that a loved one’s cherished dog or cat will be cared for and loved–which is just what the pet’s owner would want.