Death of owner big problem for pets

The late actress Carrie Fisher and Gary her french bulldog. Photo / AP
The late actress Carrie Fisher and Gary her french bulldog. Photo / AP

The death of Hollywood actress Carrie Fisher in late 2016 raised an important question for pet-owners: what happens to beloved animals when the owner dies?

Fisher's premature death sent shockwaves around the world. But some of the biggest media interest in the days following the death of everyone's favourite movie princess was the controversy over what would happen to her loyal French bulldog, Gary.

Fortunately Gary, to whom Fisher frequently referred as a 'therapy dog' who helped with her mental health issues, has reportedly been taken in by Fisher's daughter Billie Lourd.

But it threw a light on the practical aspects of who takes charge of companion animals in the event of an owner's death. As with most issues regarding estates, it doesn't pay to assume that the nearest and dearest will make a choice you would be happy with after your passing.

The issue of ongoing pet care may not arise solely upon death. With New Zealand's ageing population, many Kiwis are facing tough decisions about what to do with their pets when they become ill or move into a care facility.

Dave Allan, general manager of Bombay Petfoods which produces the Jimbo's brand, is in favour of putting animals in your will, leaving clear instructions and money to cover their care.

"There are a lot of older people on their own who want an animal for company - but you have to consider what happens next."

"My dad is 73 and mum 71 and Dad has a fox terrier that's only a couple of years old. His last one lived for over 20 years, so I can see a situation that might arise," Allan says.

He also wonders if the rules around animals in retirement homes will need to change or whether it will drive a trend towards older people choosing smaller animals that can move with them: "cute and fluffies, rather than big dribbly Labradors".

According to the Daily Telegraph, the British RSPCA estimates around 70,000 owners die each year in the UK without making arrangements for their pets. While many are taken on by family and friends, a large number are put down due to a lack of alternative care arrangements.

In a bid to address the problem, animal welfare charity Blue Cross has developed a 'help' card to be carried in a pet owner's wallet, on which they can record their pet's details, information about their vet and who might take the animals. (The American ASPCA has a similar scheme.)

The charity has also set up a 'Pets into Care' scheme, where owners can register their pets and arrange for them to be taken in by Blue Cross and re-homed, if there is no one else to look after them. It's not just for cats or dogs: horses, donkeys, rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs, hamsters, mice and rats can also be taken care of.

Taking on a pet after someone has died is not only an emotional responsibility; there are financial side-effects as well.

While making provisions in a will for animals to be looked after might sound like the preserve of the super-rich, it makes sense not only to nominate a future carer but also leave them some money to cover costs. Online legal advice agency LegalZoom also offers a Pet Protection Agreement, which enables owners to nominate guardians for their pets and leave money for their ongoing care, for just US$39.

The ASPCA website has some good advice on pet planning, including creating a dossier of information of each pet - to ensure anyone taking over their care knows important details about their health and traits, plus tips on formal and informal agreements.

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