Mary Lou Fuller and her dog Sam athome in Huntington...

Mary Lou Fuller and her dog Sam athome in Huntington Station. (Nov. 19, 2010) Credit: Ed Betz

When Mary Lou Fuller of Huntington Station wound up in the emergency room for more than 24 hours recently, she was frantic to get home, worried that there was no one to care for her 4-year-old miniature pinscher, Sam.

"I have a neighbor who does vacation care, but she wasn't home, and I had never thought about making plans for an emergency situation," says Fuller, who is 82. "Having a pet is wonderful. But a lot of people are in my situation, where no one can take your pet if you have an emergency." Luckily, Fuller was able to reach her son-in-law to care for Sam while she was in the hospital.

According to Jennifer Devine, a geriatric social worker for Caring People in Islip, all older pet owners should have a plan, not only for temporary care of a pet if you become ill or need to spend extended time in rehab, but also for your pet's future if you should die unexpectedly. Devine and two colleagues have formed Caring 4 Pets, a free referral and resource service to help seniors plan for the care of their pets.

"There's a need for a plan to keep seniors and their pets together and to try to prevent the pet from ending up in a shelter," she says. "Seniors have to plan for their pet if there's a medical crisis. If you're taken by ambulance, how will someone know there's a pet in the house? Too often we hear stories of pets that have died because no one knew they were there."

Devine says there are two steps to planning for your pet's future: the contingency plan for emergency care and estate planning for your pet's long-term care.

For the contingency plan, get permission from someone you trust to be your pet's emergency caregiver and have a backup in case that person is unavailable at the needed time. To help make the transition as smooth as possible, be sure to write down specific information about your pets. This should include a description of all the names your pets answer to, the veterinarian's information, emergency contacts, medications, dosages, favorite hiding spots, diet, meal time, favorite treats and toys. If you have a dog, how often does the pooch get walked, where is the leash kept and are there any allergies involved?

Devine says the information should be shared with the caretaker, with copies on the refrigerator, in your wallet, your car and the vet's office where you take your pet.

Some towns and shelters have stickers you can place on your door or window to let emergency personnel know you have a pet inside. They can also be ordered from the ASPCA website (see box).

The second part of the planning process for your pet is your estate. When Melissa Gillespie, a Huntington attorney, does estate planning for seniors, she includes their companion animals. "This part of a will is often overlooked," she says, "but if you pass away without a plan, your pet can wind up in a shelter where it will be euthanized."

Gillespie says pet owners can leave a bequest to the person they want to adopt their animal, or set up a separate trust that names a trustee to oversee the money and a guardian to care for the pet. She also recommends that you not name your pets in the will, which should, instead, provide for all of the pets you own at time of death.

Of course, all arrangements must be discussed with the people you hope will care for your pet, says Elizabeth Zimits, a veterinarian in West Hempstead. Don't assume it's OK with your adult son or daughter, for instance, who may have a child with an allergy or pets of their own that wouldn't blend well with your beloved companion.

"You need to discuss it and if it doesn't feel right, choose someone else," says Zimits. "There has to be a trust level - like choosing a godparent who will care for your pet as you do."

If you don't have anyone to take in your pet, Devine recommends calling no-kill shelters and rescue groups in your area to see what arrangements they provide.

"Lots of pets can be re-homed," says Joan Phillips, president and co-founder of the Animal Lovers League of Glen Cove. Her organization runs the Safe Haven temporary foster program for pets whose owners are unable to care for them due to illness or financial hardship.

"It's not a permanent sanctuary," says Phillips. "Some of the animals live in the shelter and others are sent to foster homes. We require the owners to check in with us regularly and to leave contact information. If they don't do this, we have the right to re-home their animal. Of course we always prefer that someone in the owner's family can step up to care for the pet. In this economy, there's no guarantee that shelters and groups can afford to stay open, so the best option for your pet is still family or friends."

Some shelters offer the option to leave a bequest to cover the cost of care for your pet, as well as placement with another family. For an immediate donation of $10,000, the North Shore Animal League's Safe Haven Surviving Pet Care Plan will take care of all of your pet's needs if you're unable to do so and will try to find new home for it. Additional pets can be added at $5,000 each. Save-a-Pet Animal Rescue in Port Jefferson Station has a similar program, though the fee is based on the age and health of your pet. And Bideawee in Westhampton will soon be launching its "For the Life of Pets" program, which asks for a $50,000 bequest to cover the full care of the pet and prepare it for adoption if specified by the owner.

"There are limited perfect solutions, which makes this a vulnerable population of pets," says Devine. "But having a plan can make the difference in providing a caring environment for your pet's future."

Sticker alert
A sticker is available to alert emergency workers or firefighters that there's a pet in your home. 

To obtain one, go to aspca.org and search for "disaster preparedness."

Pet emergency cards for your wallet can also be downloaded at various websites, such as 2ndchance4pets.org /idcards.pdf, or by calling Caring 4 Pets at 631-697-5995.

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