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Every year, a large number of dogs are left in limbo after their owner dies. For these dogs, the sudden change can be a traumatic experience. Luckily, it can easily be avoided with a little forward planning. So how do you set up an emergency caregiver for your beloved dog, in case they should outlive you?

Choosing a Friend or Family Member To Take Care of Your Dog After Your Death

Perhaps you’re thinking: “I know exactly where Fido will go if I die: to my sister/best friend/neighbor/aunt.” If you do have an emergency caregiver in mind, wonderful! Even so, experts recommend spending some extra time thinking the decision through.

First, consider whether your pet will truly be happy in the caregiver’s environment. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my dog like this person?
  • Has this person cared for pets before?
  • Will my dog get along well with every member of the household, including any other pets or children?
  • Will this person be able to provide the quality of life my dog is used to? For instance: will your dog have a yard, if they’re used to one? Will they get as much exercise as they’re used to? Will they have as much company as they’re used to? Or, if your dog has led a quiet life, will their new home be too busy or chaotic? You might also want to consider household rules, such as whether your dog will be allowed upstairs, or onto furniture.
  • If your dog has any medical requirements, such as medications: will someone in the new household be able to take care of those needs?
Golden Retriever puppy laying on a woman's lap in winter.
alexsokolov/Getty Images Plus

Juliet Boyd, Executive Director of Oakland’s Hopalong Animal Rescue, also advises giving serious thought to how happy your designated caregiver will be with the arrangement. She encourages pet owners to ask themselves: “Is my friend or family member someone that truly loves my pet, or are they doing this as a favor to me because they love me?” At the Pet Survivor Program, Hopalong’s program for pets who have outlived their owners (on which more later), she notes: “We have had some people contact us who’ve said, I’m supposed to inherit my sister’s cat or dog but I’m not completely comfortable.” Remember: if your pet’s new owner isn’t truly happy to have them around, your pet won’t be truly happy either.

And don’t keep all this deliberating to yourself. It’s important to bring your potential caregiver into the conversation and discuss your dog’s needs with them at length, to see if they’d be a good fit. When you have that conversation, also be sure to discuss how you’d like your dog’s medical and end-of-life care to be treated.

Making Sure Your Designated Caregiver Can Afford a Dog

Sadly, finding a caregiver for your pet won’t only be about establishing mutual respect and lifestyle compatibility. Anyone agreeing to care for a dog—especially an older dog or one with existing medical needs—will also have to consider medical expenses, as well as the day-to-day cost of caring for a dog.

In fact, the financial burden of caring for pets is one of the major reasons so many dogs end up in shelters after their owners die. It’s also why these bereaved dogs—who are often older and so more likely to face medical problems—so often struggle to find permanent homes once they’ve reached the shelter.

All of which makes it clear: when you select a caregiver for your dog, it’s important to leave enough money for your dog’s care, too. But how much should you leave?

A good rule of thumb is to calculate your annual expenditure on your dog, and multiply that by your dog’s life expectancy, then add some extra money for unexpected medical expenses. “You don’t have a crystal ball for what that future will be, and veterinary costs can be incredibly high, depending on the dog’s future health,” Boyd notes. “So I would say, honestly, allot a little more money than you thought, just to cover the bases for care should a medical condition develop.”

And how can owners will money for their pet’s care? Sadly, it’s not legal to leave money directly to a pet, but you have a few other options: you can will the money directly to the designated caregiver, or set up a trust in your pet’s name. Setting up a pet trust will mean that the caregiver must follow your instructions and use the money only for the care of your pet.

why does my dog follow me everywhere

Services To Make Sure Your Pet Is Well Cared for After Your Death

Alternatively, you could seek out one of the country’s growing number of programs for pets that outlive their owners—like the Pet Survivor Program at Hopalong Animal Rescue.

At the Pet Survivor Program, staff compile a full dossier of information about participating pets, including their likes and dislikes, medical needs, and the owner’s dream home for them. The owner then gifts $6,000 (or more if they wish) per pet to Hopalong Animal Rescue, in their will. In exchange, Hopalong finds a loving forever home that matches the pet’s needs and preferences, covers all of the pet’s medical bills for the rest of their life, and remains in contact with the new owner, as a third party looking out for the pet.

The great thing about this, Boyd says, is that “it takes away the filter for adopters. A lot of people think twice about adopting a senior pet, because they’re worried about medical issues.” But the Pet Survivor Program “takes away that filter of worrying about veterinary costs, so if they fall in love with a particular dog or cat that has an underlying medical condition or is a senior, they don’t have to say, I just can’t afford it right now.”

Hopalong Animal Rescue also pledges that no pet in the Pet Survivor Program will end up at a shelter: they’re placed in a trusted foster home, or directly in a loving forever home that matches the owner’s stipulations. These days, the popularity of the program and Hopalong’s network of thousands of potential adopters mean that most dogs go straight to their forever home.

The Pet Survivor Program is based in Oakland but accepts pets from around the country. To see if a similar program is available in your area, contact your local rescue organizations.

When Should You Choose Your Dog’s Emergency Caregiver?

Boyd encourages all dog owners to consider their pet’s emergency care sooner rather than later. “Many people are shocked to hear that still so many pets wind up in shelters,” she told me. “I can’t tell you how many we see. And you can tell that they were cared for and deeply loved by someone, and because no arrangements were made, they wind up at your local city shelter.”

Since there’s no knowing what tomorrow holds, the best time to prepare for your dog’s comfortable, loving life after your death is right now.

The Loyal Legacy™ Plan allows you to set up a personalized pet trust for your dog and provides you with the money you’ll need to fund it with Group Term Life Insurance underwritten by New York Life Insurance Company. #5846077.1

This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.
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