Friday, February 3, 2012

The Pet Problem

The Pet Problem is the headline of an article in today's New York Times, which of course all of us here at VBB central read cover-to-cover before office hours every day. It is required reading for this blog post, so, go ahead, click over there, and check it out. I'll wait.

No, really. I'll wait.

OK. Hi, welcome back. So, the problem of elderly people and their pets, and the mismatch between their life expectancies, is commonly encountered in the world of general practice companion animal medicine. In my experience, most very elderly pet owners love their pets and prioritize the care of their dog or cat above almost anything else in their life. The subject of what to do if or when the owner expects their beloved companion to outlive them is frequently raised in my exam room - along with the sad subject of what to do if Fluffy is going to die first, and the owner feels "too old" to get another pet. In the latter situation, I have been able on several occasions to match relatively healthy but older pets, whose owners have recently passed away, with recently-bereaved elderly owners whose pets have recently passed away. Talk about a feel good moment all around! But in the first situation, it's very difficult.

I have had owners ask me if I would be willing to euthanize their dog or cat, once they themselves have passed on. Euthanasia of a healthy pet is not something most general practice vets feel good about. Simply because the pet owner is old and dying, that does not necessarily give them the right to decide a pet should die. However, commonly, the elderly pet owner is him or herself feeling the loneliness that comes after one's friends and family have largely predeceased you, and the neglect when the few remaining family members you do have do not come to visit you or even call you to say hello. When your world is so small, and there is no one to see you and give you a hug every day, is it worth it? They may feel that for their pet, there is no chance of finding a new loving home, and therefore want to spare him that loneliness. I can understand that, but I have so far been able to convince my elderly clients that this is not the way to go.

I have had owners ask me if I would personally take their dog or cat. "Dr. VBB - you are so good with Timmy. You understand him. I would rest easy if I knew he could have a place in your home." I appreciate the sentiment, really. But, if I took home every needy pet I encountered, or even if I took home 10% of them, I would quickly find myself living in some kind of "Dogs Gone Wild" meets "Hoarders" scenario. This is not a practical solution.

If the pet is relatively healthy, rehoming through one of the local rescues is often a viable option. If the pet has special needs, it can be trickier, but I do my best to find a place for it by checking in with local colleagues and social networks, in hope of finding a match. Hey, it just struck me - "Veterinarian as Owner-Pet Matchmaker" would be an interesting elective, wouldn't it? Right up there with biochemical basis of disease!

Anyway. Sometimes we see the situation where it seems like the owner and the pet are in a contest - who's going to die first? We take the cat in for boarding while the owner's heart failure is treated in the hospital. The owner goes home, the cat goes home, then the cat comes back in three days later vomiting and dehydrated. It's in renal failure, this happens periodically. We diurese it and we'd be sending it home after four days but oops, owner is back in the hospital with pneumonia. We board the cat for a few weeks, then it gets to go home again. Then it comes back in. It's really sick, hasn't eaten in a few days, hey look, now it has diabetes. We get it regulated on insulin. We send it home only to have it bounce back again a few days later because the home health nurse taking care of the owner, who broke her hip and is recovering at home, can't give the cat its insulin. These situations become very very complicated sometimes. I think the worst is when the owner arranges for us to board the pet while they go into the hospital themselves, and then they die in the hospital, and no one tells us, and eventually, we call to find out what's going on and get yelled at by the grieving son or daughter who answers the phone for being so insensitive as to ask what arrangements have been made for the pet, "at a time like this." Not being psychic, we do not know it is "a time like this" if no one tells us. The guy who taught the Crystal Ball elective at my vet school was on sabbatical during my third year, btw.

I once had a client my own age who came in frequently with a very large dog. The dog was obedient to her and well-controlled by her, but had significant aggressive tendencies and was not safe to be around when the owner was not present. Unfortunately, this client was suffering from widely metastatic cancer. At times, she was not able to care for her dog due to her weakness while undergoing chemotherapy. I took care of this dog for about five years, during which time the owner had at least four or five brushes with death. We were able to board him successfully only by keeping him relatively sedated, which is really not optimal. Eventually, in this case, we did euthanize him when his owner passed away. She had asked me to do it, and I couldn't refuse. I did have to deeply sedate him via IM injection while a tech held him at arm's length on a rabies pole first, though. Very sad situation.

The idea of the pet trust is interesting. I'm not sure there are that many people who have enough of an estate to make this idea that popular. Including a pet in one's will seems like a good idea, although as pointed out in the article, that isn't completely binding.

Veterinarian readers - what kind of solutions have you come up with for your elderly clients who fear for the fate of their longer-lived pets?


  1. My first euthanasia was this extremely old couple's dog. These people lived for this dog. The little old lady was the sweetest thing in the world, and the old man was what you hope everyone's grandfather is like. It broke my heart to watch them loose their beloved pet, knowing that they thought they would go first. Thankfully they also had the nicest children in the world, and came back a few months later with a kitty.....that their daughter had agreed to take when they passed before they even got her.

    I miss those clients.

  2. so interesting to see this from a vet's perspective. I would encourage you to consider advising clients *getting* a pet to do so from a Responsible Ethical Breeder because REB's *always* take back an animal they have bred, at any age, no matter what. it's in our contracts, and damn straight we enforce them. animals from REB's *never* become part of a shelter population. this past week there have been two cases of owner deaths, the dogs were immediately recovered by their breeders and taken to the homes where they were born.

    people die all the time, accidents happen, so it is incumbent upon ALL of us to have provisions for our animals in place, documents easily located, and family members advised of plans.

  3. I agree with Leonore that everyone, no matter their age, should have a plan. My husband and I are 28, and we will be providing about 20k to care for our three cats in the event of our deaths. It's not a happy thought but it's reality. In California there is a place that will take cats and keep them to the end of their lives. It is $8000 per cat. A lot of money, yes, but guaranteed care and a decent life (it's in a house, no cages, not overcrowded etc.)

  4. My father has advanced pulmonary fibrosis, and doesn't have long to live. He also has a 20-something year old gelding (that he doesn't want sold - and isn't trained to ride anyway) and some barn cats (the cats are all fixed). Our family in his area won't take care of the animals after he's gone, and I'm 3 states away and unable.

    He told me that he added to his will a bequest to the family friends that own the barn/land so they will take care of the horse and cats until they pass and bury them there. (the horse's mother is already buried on the land - the friends are really good people and had no problems with that).

    I told him that I was perfectly fine with him leaving whatever amount - besides the fact that it's his money to do with as he pleases, the animals are his babies and the people are good people and will care for them just as my dad does now.


    My husband and I need to get a will made up that would provide for our indoor cat, and our feral colony we care for. I have no idea how to go about this, but it's definitely on our radar. None of my family or friends would step up to take care of them, so we have to figure it out.