Who Will Care for Your Pet When You're Gone?

Leona Helmsley may have arranged for her pet pooch Trouble to be cared for by her brother and to inherit $12 million upon her death.

But, in the end, it seemed as though Trouble might not actually inherit the money — there are legal restrictions with regard to leaving money directly to an animal. Trouble’s troubles only grew worse when Helmsley’s brother, at least initially, said he had no interest in caring for the dog.

Although Trouble’s predicament may have seemed humorous while it played out in the media, making sure a beloved pet is cared for in the event of an accident, an extended illness or death is no joke.

In fact, thousands of pets are sent to shelters each year following the death of their caretakers.

“After Katrina, it became evident that people need to do this kind of planning,” said Kim Bressant-Kibwe, trust and estates counsel for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “You need to have a plan in place for what to do if you can’t take care of your pet. It’s the same as disaster preparedness. You need to have someone that you designate as the one to call in case of an emergency.”

Bressant-Kibwe said pet owners should find temporary shelter for their pets at the very least, asking a neighbor, friend, relative or even their veterinarian to care for the animal.

“If you suddenly become ill and need to be hospitalized, you may need somebody for a few days or a few months,” she said. “That someone could be a next door neighbor; especially someone is familiar with the pet and its needs. It could be someone who has pets of their own that your pets have played with.”

Pet owners also should shop around for a permanent owner and make sure that whomever they choose is reliable and comfortable with caring for animals. The person or persons chosen should be brought up-to-speed on the pets nutritional and medical needs.

It’s also a good idea to have a back-up person in case the first one doesn’t work out.

“Someone also has to have access to your house,” Bressant-Kibwe said. “Someone needs a key so that they can get in if you’re not around.”

Worst case scenario, said Bressant-Kibwe, is that a pet will be left alone in the home with no food and water and will eventually die of dehydration.

“At the very least, if someone has a key they can come in and feed the pet and spend at least a little bit of time with it each day,” she said. “Whether that’s enough depends on the pet. Some cats are very independent and would be fine with that, other animals need companionship.”

The bottom line is that most pet owners do not want to see their pets end up in a shelter where, if not adopted, they may spend their final days. Bressant-Kibwe said some owners may want to explore legal channels such as setting up a trust for their pets or including it in their wills. For more information pet owners can visit www.aspca.com/pettrust.

Here are quick tips some tips from Responsible Animal Owners of Tennessee:

— Locate two responsible friends or family members willing to provide temporary emergency care for your pet. Both caretakers need keys to your home, as well as feeding and care instructions for each pet, your vet’s name, and an "authorization" letter from you to your vet authorizing them to request treatment for your pet.

— Tell people who your caretakers are. Make sure people than just your designated caretakers know who is responsible for your pets in the event of your absence. Give these people the names and phone numbers of your pet’s caretakers.

— Keep an “alert” card in your wallet or handbag with the names of your pets and the names and phone numbers of your pet’s designated caretakers.

To make more formal arrangements:

— Have an attorney draw up a will or trust to provide for the care of your pet or pets and a way to ensure that care is provided for financially. You will need to decide who should have custody of your pet, whether you want them all to go to one person or whether different pets should go to different people. You may want to try to keep pet that have bonded closely with one another together.