Pet Papers

Late one evening last fall, my blackberry chirped to notify me I had received a text message image. I fetched the device and found a little black nose with soft brown eyes and long lashes gazing back at me.

This magnificent creature had been rescued from a public shelter on day six of her five-day hold. Found running in the streets, her strong survivor instincts and robust energy had kept her alive before Animal Control secured her. I didn’t know what her gentle eyes had seen, but from the looks of her it hadn’t been food. 

The next day, I took this way-too-skinny nine-month-old Golden Retriever into my home, much to the disenchantment of Sadie, my seven-year-old Labradork, who fears any and all ball competitors. We began with building a foundation of trust, partnership, and a sense of security, along with filling the belly of this lovely orphan re-named Bella Mia. 

Mia is now a relationship that will last a lifetime. But who’s lifetime, now that she has officially joined my family? A question everyone wants to avoid asking is: “Who will provide basic care for my beloved pet if a time comes when I cannot?”  

You may think that some friend or member of your family would be thrilled at the “gift” of your pet upon your death, but the hard truth is that most such beneficiaries are not. Even if your designated caretaker is willing, the care and expense of a pet may present a financial or logistical burden. 

As a responsible individual, you provide your pets with food, water, shelter, veterinary care, and lots of love. To ensure that this quality of care continues should something unexpected happen, it is critical to plan ahead. Research indicates that about half of Americans who drafted wills included a provision for their pets, but there are other planning steps, as well. 

Short-term planning to ensure that your animals continually receive proper care starts in your wallet, with an Animal Alert Card that tells emergency personnel that a pet is relying on your return. This card should contain each pet’s name, breed, and location, along with contact information for someone with access to your home. The card should also include any special care instructions and list medications needed. (If you don’t already carry such a card, you can download one for free from 

In addition to carrying the Animal Alert Card, a guardian should prepare a more in-depth document that repeats the information on your card and provides additional details. For instance, Mia is a very private girl when she needs to do her business and will hold it forever until she gets home, unless you have a tremendous amount of patience in an untested territory. Such information could prevent a lot of concern and frustration for her new caregiver.

The Animal Information Document should name your preferred caregiver and be kept alongside your other estate planning documents. Include any further instructions you think would be helpful, including:

  • Food and diet;
  • Daily routines;
  • Favorite toys;
  • Grooming information;
  • Social behaviors/issues;
  • Medical info, including preferred veterinarian;
  • Identifying marks; and
  • Disposition of the pet’s remains upon his or her death (burial, cremation, memorial, etc.)

The third essential item for effective short-term planning is a sticker or sign at the front entrance of your home to alert people that there are pets inside, including a contact phone number. This is especially important to notify police, firefighters, friends, etc. who may need to enter your home in your absence. These stickers are also available from ARF at no charge. 

In addition, special instructions pertaining to pets should be included in your durable power of attorney. Powers of attorney, which authorize someone else to conduct some or all of your affairs if you become incapacitated, have become standard estate planning devices. Include language that authorizes your “agent” to care for your pets, to spend your money for that care, and to place the animals with a long-term caregiver. This legal device can only complement your other efforts to ensure that for your pet’s future without you is happy and healthy. 

Finally, be sure to check in your area for animal organizations that offer placement programs for adoptable animals whose humans have passed away. With such guardian programs, people can rest assured that their beloved companion animals will be well cared for when the need arises.

When a guardian passes away, dogs and cats enrolled in the ARF Guardian Program are taken into our Adoption Program. They receive excellent care as we work to place them in the best possible homes. This service is for people who specify in their wills or trust documents that their pet companions are to be entrusted to ARF at the time of their death, and who make continued annual donations to ARF in any amount. 

Mia and my other animals bring me great love and devotion. Establishing a plan for their life-long wellbeing is one way I have returned the favor. I urge you to do the same for your beloved companions.

For more information on ARF’s Animal Alert Cards, Alert Stickers, and Guardian Program, please visit

Elena Bicker is the Executive Director of Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) in Walnut Creek. She is assisted by her yellow Labradork, Sadie, and new puppy, Mia. Ms. Bicker resides with her husband, Bill, in Danville.

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