“Without a proper plan in place for the future care of your pets, they are at risk of ending up in a shelter where they could be euthanized,” Nahas said.
Horrified yet? I am, because my husband and I have nothing in place beyond a verbal agreement with my sister-in-law that she would take our cherished dogs Cash and Truffle if we should meet our end on one of our many international travel adventures. And she lives hours away; who would come feed the dogs and walk them in the meantime, assure them that they would be OK?
We have pet insurance, provide regular veterinary care, invest in the best food we can buy them, and in general spoil our two dogs thoroughly. But it makes me sick to picture them in a scene Mary G. Anderson, author of "Pet Protection Legal Care Plan", described.
Get the better newsletter.
In her book, she said, there's a the story of a dog whose owner said goodbye when he left for work in the morning. “Dad doesn't come home, there's no dinner, nighttime comes.” There's been an accident, she explained. “The next day now he's hungry, he's afraid and he doesn't understand. Finally late afternoon somebody goes, 'better go to the guy's house.' It's a complete stranger to the dog, they open the door. The dog bares its teeth, it growls, it's scared, it's hungry, it doesn't know what's going on. This person backs out the door and goes, 'this dog is feral.'”
Start with an emergency plan
This scenario can be prevented with some advanced planning, starting with emergency care. “The person who responds in an emergency can be a temporary caregiver and does not have to be a permanent caregiver,” Nahas said. “For example, your neighbor could step in to feed your dog for 48 hours until your son can come pick up the dog.” Even if you do have your pet in an estate plan, “probate of a will can take months to years, and in the meantime, who is caring for the pet?” she said. “If you are including a pet in your estate plan, we recommend an informal arrangement in addition to a formal arrangement with the caregiver.” (And that's if you even have a will; only four in 10 U.S. adults do, according to a survey by Caring.com.)
If you do have a will (or are convinced now you should), “formal arrangements, such as a pet trust of a provision in a will can be a good way to get money into the hands of a caregiver,” Nahas said, ensuring they'll have the funds to take care of your pet.
How much money? Anderson reminds pet owners to include all costs — not only vet care and food, but grooming and medicine. Don't forget treats, training or boarding, and toys. Of course not all of us exactly have an estate, (does one used Ford sedan and a bunch of travel souvenirs count?) but if you have life insurance, be sure you're accounting for the cost to care for your pets.
You may need to ask a few people to help
When you choose the caretaker who will be responsible for your pet, “we also stress not assuming a person will care for your pets,” said Nahas. “Ask!” You should also have backup caregivers in case things change, “and check in periodically to ensure that the person is still willing.” And you may need more than just a caregiver.
“Consider having a third person control and direct the money provided for your pet’s designated caregiver to make sure the funds are used correctly,” Nahas urged. “Also, consider a donation to a shelter or an animal retirement home for the future care and re-homing of your pet.”
Create a "pet dossier"
In addition to planning the financial side of the care, “the ASPCA recommends creating a pet dossier with pertinent information about your pet,” Nahas said. To include in this document: habits, food preferences, medical conditions and medications taken, veterinary information and records, and behavior around other pets and people. Keep a copy in a safe but accessible place with other important papers, she said, and distribute it to all parties in your pet’s circle of care.
That could include veterinarians, groomers, and pet sitters, Anderson said. You'll want to be sure they have that pet dossier, along with any idiosyncrasies of your pet or special requests (to my sister-in-law if you're reading, Truffle needs to sleep between two pillows, and Cash needs a window he can look out all day). Anderson suggests providing the caregiver with a daily care plan where you note details like odd things they might be afraid of, whether you crate them, what a typical day is like. She even recommends you have a plan for your caretaker to retrieve some items of your clothing so there's a reassuring smell for your pet.
And to be sure there's no lag time in putting your plan into place, carry the ASPCA's Pet Alert card in your wallet, said Nahas, “that will alert authorities that you have a pet at home. Make sure to list two emergency contacts for them to notify should something happen to you.” She also recommends an alert sticker for your home to let people know that pets are inside. That should be placed near your front door and include your name and phone number as well as your veterinarian’s information.
It's heartbreaking to imagine your pet missing you and not knowing what's happened. But it's even worse to imagine them not being taken care of. So next on my agenda is to create my dossier and plan and get those wallet cards and stickers now … right after I go pet my dogs.
MORE PAWRENTING ADVICE
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.