When my father died in July, I flew out to Oklahoma to help my stepmother with the funeral and other arrangements. I expected to be there for a week, but then my stepmother fell and broke her wrist and kneecap — necessitating surgery and a lengthy stay in a rehab facility.
That brought up a big question: Who was going to care for her pets? I was able to stay an additional two weeks, but I had to be home by the end of the month to take care of my husband and our dogs after his hip replacement surgery.
My stepmother, Ann, didn’t have a regular pet sitter, and her animals — an elderly toy poodle and a skittish cat — were not good candidates for a boarding kennel. We needed someone who could stay in the home or make multiple visits daily, give medication, and spend time with 16-year-old Spike, who was grieving for my father. I wasn’t familiar with the resources in the area, and I had my hands full with everything else that was going on.
A veterinary social worker might have been able to help us navigate this quandary.
“These kinds of situations crop up all the time,” says Jeannine Moga of Smithfield, Virginia, a licensed clinical social worker. Moga’s work takes her into the places and situations where human and animal needs meet: homes, hospitals and veterinary clinics, to name a few. She also works in cases involving domestic violence.
Veterinary social workers have training in human-animal interactions and relationships, and may be employed by veterinary hospitals or have their own practices. Their clients might have an acute illness, an unexpected surgery or an injury from a fall or car accident — any of which could render them unable to care for their pets for days, weeks or even months. In other instances, clients may be facing a long-term health crisis, such as a diagnosis of cancer or dementia, or a dangerous home situation involving domestic violence. They may not have family members or friends who can help.
The role of the social worker is to help clients figure out how to manage not only their animals’ care, but also their own.
“Sometimes the difficulty of finding care for an animal can prevent people from staying on track with their own health care needs,” Moga says.
It’s important to make pet care contingency plans now, so they can be set in motion if you face an emergency. This is also something that seniors and their adult children should discuss. Moga says that since the pandemic began, this issue has been “at the forefront of people’s minds, because you might get sick very suddenly.” She adds that pet owners should “plan in advance for any potential interruption in their animal’s care related to their own health and well-being.”
She recommends starting with small steps, such as writing down details about animals’ daily needs: where they eat and how much, where you keep their food, whether they receive regular medications, how often you change the litter box, what the dog’s walk or play routine is like, and so on. Include a list of pet care contacts, such as the veterinarian, the nearest emergency clinic and the groomer (if pets have regular appointments) — as well as someone who has agreed to provide emergency pet care or transportation, and who has a key to your home. Post the information on the front of your refrigerator where it can be easily found.
In my stepmother’s case, we were fortunate that her great-granddaughter was able to move in temporarily to take care of Spike and Daisy. But helping Ann put together a care plan — and updating my own — is now at the top of my to-do list. ¦
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