Animal Companions:Planning for when we’re Ill


Among the many things we have to think about in order to be responsible care givers to our animals is — what happens when we’re sick?

Sooner or later most of us will feel “poorly” as my friend from the south says. I’m talking about those days when we have to drag ourselves out of bed, perhaps coughing or even gagging so that we can see to the basic needs of our animals. Fresh water, food, some trips outside. I’ve miserably stood on the end of a leash, feverish and nauseous, wind howling, cold rain ripping into my face waiting for my schnauzer to decide just where she would eventually relieve herself so that I could pick up after her before crawling back to my apartment and bed.

Currently I’m lucky to live in a small town where I can actually have a house and yard. I still have to drag myself out of bed on my sick days to walk Jenny around the yard in rain, snow, wind, and hail. (Thank God Gracie believes in racing outside, relieving herself and running back in during foul weather.)

That’s what happens when we get a little sick and maybe need a friend to come over and take the dog for a walk. I’m also suggesting today though that you stop a do a little planning in case you ever get really sick, need medical attention, or are disabled for a while.

Planning ahead. This is an important aspect of being a responsible animal caregiver. No one plans to be in a car accident, slip and fall, or hundreds of other things that can unexpectedly impede our ability to be independent. But we still need to plan for the general emergencies that may leave our pets needing someone besides ourselves to help care for them.

Maybe you live with an animal like Jenny – older, easy going, doesn’t require a lot of extra maintenance. Someone might be able to stop by your house, take her out a few times a day for you. That would take care of her most basic physical needs and might be appropriate care for a few days. It isn’t a long term solution though. Older, easy going animals are often also sensitive and rely on human companionship for a sense of well being. Left alone for days on end they can become depressed, stopped eating or drinking, or suffer disruptions in their bowel systems. With an animal like Jenny it can be important to have a backup home where she can stay, someone who can make sure she still has the quiet daily interaction she needs, preferably someone she is already familiar with.

Gracie playing

Gracie and high energy pets are another story. Gracie needs lots of socialization and interaction everyday. She is not well suited to spending several days with just ‘upkeep’ attention. She needs to play, to be reminded of good behavior, and to have responsible supervision. This is one reason why Gracie started to be socialized into a dog boarding/play group from puppyhood. She regularly spends an overnight there, has play groups she belongs to, and is used to being in her home away from home. I have also had time to find the place I am most comfortable with leaving her, knowing from experience that she will receive the kind of time and attention I consider appropriate. This is a dog boarding situation where she receives much more than basic care: she is given supervised socialization; her manners are reinforced; she receives individual attention, and her personality quirks are appreciated not reviled.

Then there are puppies, like Lil.


Puppies are just growing and learning. If you have a young pup and become ill, is there someone you know and trust who is going to be willing to continue training your puppy in the way that you would? Or is there a trainer you can afford to leave your puppy with? Will the puppy’s housebreaking be continued or will the puppy end up being resented by the caregiver becasue they lack housetraining and other manners?

And at what point do you decide it is perhaps time to consider rehoming a puppy if you are suddenly facing an extended inability to personally care for and train her? Puppies ideally need to bond with their person/people when they are young and if the puppy is going to spend a large amount of their early time with someone else, perhaps that should be their permanent bond.

These are practical questions; I argue that everyone should plan for the future of their children and pets rather than hoping that a crises will never happen. I’m also superstitious – if you don’t have a plan it makes it that much more likely that you will need one.

You can also help prepare your animals in case they ever need temporary caregivers.

I. Train

Make sure your animals know the basics of obedience. They are just so much easier for both you and others to handle when they know basic obedience. They are also more likely to be able to fit into someone else’s household as guests and to be manageable by a visiting caregiver.

II. Socialize

Play dates, public walking places, obedience groups — these are all ways to socialize your animal to other animals and people. Again, the better socialized and trained your animal is, the more likely someone else will be able to step in and help care for them should the need arise.

III. Network

Meet other people who care about animals. They will often be your best resources for trading both pet care tasks and information about trainers, boarding etc. Networking should also include those who provide pet services. In other words, don’t wait until an emergency to use a boarding service. Even if you only leave your pet overnight once in a while this is good practice for both pet and owner if the pet will ever require boarding. If you are likely to need boarding sometimes, then investigate boarding situations and try them.

I’m sure many of you have other suggestions that you’ve found helpful in making sure your animals have backup care in cases of emergencies. We should also use this opportunity to remind people that animals can and should be planned for in one’s Will. If you want to make sure that your companion ends up taken care of in a particular manner, then you need to have a written, legal document that ensures your wishes are carried out. Never assume that other people know and will do what you want with your animal companions should something happen to you. If you have made arrangements you need to make sure that there is a public record of these arrangements to save your companion a potential trip to the shelter. Every shelter I’m aware of has occupants whose owners were suddenly unable to care for them and who did not have a backup plan for their pets.

Hope for the best, but plan for the rest….

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