Most of us who love and share our lives with companion animals think of them as like our children. They are not human children and if we are doing a good job, we don’t humanize them. They have different needs than children, different instincts and different language skills. We know deep down that they are animals, but they are very much like children on a host of levels. They rely upon us for food, water, housing, medical care, guidance, training, language development and a host of other things which become woven into the tasks of our daily existence. I have read that dogs have similar cognitive function to that of a young child. Feline cognition seems to be a less studied topic, but that may very well be due to the fact that cats have better ways to spend their time than helping us figure them out.
Because our animals are childlike in their dependence on us and their needs, I feel pretty strongly about our responsibilities toward them. I think that anyone who brings an animal into their life must take that decision seriously and be prepared to care for that animal for the duration of his or her life. I am pretty much zero tolerance when it comes to people who tell me that their dog or cat is precious to them, but they have to give them up because of ___________ (fill in the blank). The excuses range from I don’t have time or the dog won’t listen or the cat refuses to use the litter box or we’re having a baby or some other reason. I was in a pet supply store once and saw a flyer for a gorgeous dog which read “New home needed immediately! Moving to Minnesota!” I grunted and asked the woman at the counter, “what? Do they not allow dogs in Minnesota?” I just think that having pets equates to making a promise. You don’t give away your relatives, you don’t give away your children and you don’t give away your pets or, worse yet, surrender them to an animal shelter where they may be summarily destroyed. If they mean so little to you, please. Just don't get a pet or become a foster for a homeless pet instead.
In spite of my zero tolerance for people who treat pets like an old lamp or a used sofa, I am well aware that there are times when people simply cannot keep their pets even though they do love them deeply. People get sick. People die. People lose jobs. Houses burn down. In those instances, my personal hope is that some family member or friend will step up to take that beloved pet (or pets) so that the person giving them away doesn’t lose all contact with them. It could be that they get well or get a new job or get a new place to live, after which their animal can be given back to them. In cases there that cannot happen or does not happen, my secondary hope is that the community in which that desperate person lives is a no kill community so that a local animal shelter or rescue group can help re-home the animal and the person can be assured that their pet’s life is not at risk. People who are going through hard times have enough to think about without worrying about whether their dog or cat will live or die. I also recognize that animals often are incompatible with other animals in a household and need to be re-homed for their own well-being. I have no issue with this at all. I would much prefer that a pet be placed into a new and more compatible home for the benefit of everyone, human and animal.
All this leads up to the title of my blog about preparing for the worst. If you are a pet caregiver, I really want you to consider doing two things now and I hope you will take them seriously.
The first thing I want you to do is to have a plan about what would happen to your animals if the unthinkable happened and you died or got so sick you could not take care of them. Much like people in some religions name Godparents for their children, I want you to really make plans for a Petparent. This can’t just be some wishy-washy assumption that someone you are related to or someone you know will step in and help. It has to be a direct conversation with someone in your life to get them to commit to taking your animals and keeping your promise to those animals in the event you no longer can. I’m not suggesting you have anyone sign a contract. I am suggesting that you have a face-to-face chat or serious telephone conversation in which you get a commitment from at least one person that they will care for your pets if you die or become so ill you cannot keep them.
Although my parents did not die suddenly and we lost them both to cancer in a short window of time, this was part of our planning. My beloved aunt in Texas agreed to take mom and dad’s cats and that is exactly what she did. Tommy and Batty now live in Round Rock and I know that my “Auntie M” loves them dearly. Just making those plans took a huge burden off of my mom while she was battling cancer because she knew the cats would be safe after she could no longer stay. Before Asp left us, we had a similar plan with my aunt. Aspy had been to her house and pretty much ignored the cats (thankfully). She had lost her dog, Phinny, years back and agreed to be Aspy’s Petparent should something happen to us.
The second thing I want you to do is to have both a Plan A and a Plan B to receive veterinary care for your animals either after normal business hours or on holidays. Most veterinary offices work pretty much from 9-5 and only certain days each week. Do you know where you would take your pet or who you would call if you had an emergency? Do you know if you would be able to afford it? If your Plan A for after-hours/holiday care could not help you, do you have a Plan B? Short of having a family member or child who is seriously ill or injured, I can think of nothing more traumatic than to have a pet who is injured or experiencing some life threatening condition outside of normal veterinary hours. Most cities have hospitals where people can go. Many cities do not have emergency veterinary hospitals and only a very limited number of veterinarians are in a position to help their regular clients outside of typical business hours.
We learned this second lesson the hard way just this last weekend. We had our Plan A: our veterinarian. We have known her for two decades and we continued to have her treat our dog even after we moved to a new city. She knew Aspy’s history and she also knew about most of the challenges he faced in the last year of his life. Based on that relationship, I allowed myself to think that she would be available if we needed her after hours or on a holiday. When we let Snake go in 2006, she came to our house to euthanize her when the time came and so it would be more calm and less clinical. I guess I just had it in my head that when we made the decision to let Aspy go, whenever that may be, she would be available to us. She was not.
Aspy had a short seizure in the evening of July 3d. He had been sleeping and it came out of nowhere, at least from what we could see. It was terrifying. Our vet could not see him so we took him to a local animal hospital about half an hour from our house. It was a terrible experience and we were all left tired, drained, upset and confused. We were told Aspy had a mass in his liver, one in his spleen and that the cancer had likely moved to his brain. We were also told the first 24-hours were critical and to monitor him. We did. He did not survive the monitoring period. Aspy had another seizure in the early afternoon hours of the 4th of July holiday. It went on and on and on and I feared his heart would just give out. We could not reach our veterinarian so we took him back to the same animal hospital where we had been earlier that same day and we had him euthanized.
I think Rich would agree that our Independence Day was one of the worst days of our lives and one of the worst experiences of our lives. Making the decision to euthanize a beloved pet is incredibly difficult. Ours was made more difficult because of the distance we had to transport our dog and the manner in which the process was handled once we arrived. I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say it was light years away from what I had envisioned in terms of us setting the time and place and having it be an essentially peaceful passing like we arranged for Snake. It was heart wrenching and infuriating and I admit that I am having a really hard time not thinking about it. The veterinary hospital is about a mile from my office and that proximity to the place where I spend most of my waking hours is just too close for me. We will never go back there. I have written a letter to the veterinarians we interacted with to implore them to make some changes to how they handle ordinary customer service issues and specifically how they handle end-of-life situations.
If you truly love your pets, you do not give them away absent some extraordinary circumstances and you behave responsibly so their care is provided for in the event something tragic happens. Make plans for your Petparent. Make plans for after-hours or end-of-life care. Make sure you can afford unexpected veterinary costs. You will sleep better for having done so. And I hope you can avoid some of the trauma we have endured this week. Aspy could not stay. But we would have liked to say farewell in a more controlled way and in the presence of more compassion.
Make plans. And then enjoy your time with your companion animals. Life is fleeting and precious.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson