Why it’s important to include your pet in your estate planning

In September 2022, the Canadian Animal Health Institute released the results of its 2022 Pet Population Survey, which revealed that 60% of Canadian households reported ownership of at least one cat or dog. During the pandemic, the Canadian pet dog population increased by approximately 200,000 to 7.9 million, and the pet cat population increased by approximately 400,000 to 8.5 million.1

For many of these pet-owners, their pet is more than just an animal – it is a family member. Unlike most human family members, however, a pet is a permanent dependent. For the entirety of that pet’s life, they will rely on their owner to feed them, shelter them, care for them, and ensure they receive necessary veterinary treatment when they get sick or injured. 

But what happens to that pet when their owner passes away or becomes incapacitated? 

The answer to that depends. 

When there is no plan for the pet

In Ontario, there’s no law requiring family members to take in pets of deceased or incapacitated individuals. If no arrangements have been made for the pet, they will most likely end up in a municipal shelter. 

These shelters are mandated or contracted by the local municipality to accept stray and surrendered animals. Depending on the municipality, the care provided by these shelters can vary tremendously. 

Under the Ontario Animals For Research Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. A. 22, local municipal shelters (“pounds”) are only required to hold an animal for three days, after which they can adopt the animal out, give it away for free, sell it to a registered research facility to be used in animal testing, or euthanize it. 

Each shelter has its own policies and guidelines regarding the exercise of these powers, but the hard reality is that these shelters all have limited funding and space. If a shelter is required to accept all stray and surrendered animals, and there are more animals coming into a shelter than being adopted out, then inevitably, the shelter will run out of space. To prevent that from happening and ensure that they can continue to accept animals, shelters make tough decisions about how to free up space and allocate resources to help the most number of animals. 

Those animals who find themselves in the municipal shelter system will be examined and evaluated for health and temperament. Animals who exhibit behavioural issues in the shelter environment or suffer from chronic health issues will be most at risk of being euthanized. 

Sadly, it is not uncommon for cats and dogs who are friendly at home to exhibit completely different personalities and behaviours in a shelter environment. Most shelters are crowded, with relatively small cages and kennels to maximize capacity. The level of time and attention each animal receives is limited, and often far less than what the animal previously received at home. Understandable behaviours such as nipping, biting, swatting, hissing, cowering, or refusing to eat can render an animal “unadoptable” and put them at risk of euthanasia.

So what can be done to avoid this risk?

Planning ahead is key

The first step is to think about who you would trust to care for your pet(s) in the event of your passing or incapacitation. Things to consider when choosing the appropriate caregiver include:

  • Does this individual or anyone in their household have any pet allergies?
  • What is this individual’s lifestyle? Do they travel frequently for work, or commute for long hours such that they may not have time to care for a pet?
  • Does this individual have any of their own pets? Do their pets get along with other animals? Conversely, does your pet get along with other animals?
  • Is this individual likely to outlive you?
  • Does this individual live locally, or will your pet have to be transported to another province or country? What import restrictions are there for pets in the country that your proposed caregiver resides in?
  • Will this individual care for your pet in the same manner as you have? (for example, maintaining the cat as an indoor-only cat, or allowing the dog to live inside the home rather than keeping him chained in the backyard)
  • Does this individual have the financial resources to properly care for your pet, including food, supplies, and vet care?

Once you’ve identified who your proposed pet caregiver will be, the next step is to speak with them to confirm their willingness to take on that role. Pets are a big responsibility, and surprises of this nature should be avoided. It’s important to have an open and frank discussion with this individual ahead of time, find out if they have any concerns about what you’re asking them to do, and see if those concerns can be alleviated. 

After confirming who your proposed pet caregiver will be, the next step is to speak with a lawyer to document this in your will and power of attorney.  Even if you don’t think that your current pet will outlive you, it’s a good idea to talk to your lawyer about having a general provision in your will that identifies the proposed caregiver and is applicable to future pets as well.

You should also talk to your lawyer about having a contingency plan in the event that the pet caregiver you initially chose is no longer around or able to take in the pet at the time of your passing or incapacitation. The more safeguards you can build into your will and advanced directives to ensure that your pet(s) have a safe place to go after you are no longer able to care for them, the better. 

If you don’t have a specific caregiver in mind, ask your lawyer about including detailed instructions for your estate trustee on what to do with any pets you leave behind. Such instructions can include surrendering the pets to specific approved no-kill shelters or rescues, or trying to find a suitable permanent home for the pets, with specific criteria for the home. 

Keep in mind that no-kill shelters or rescues maintain their no-kill status because they only take in animals they have capacity for. This means that, unlike municipal shelters, no-kill rescues pause intake when they reach capacity, so they may not be able to take your pet in right away. Having a list of several approved shelters or rescues for the estate trustee to contact is important.    

Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that pet care is not free. Whoever is entrusted with your pet after your passing or incapacitation will need to incur significant costs to care for the animal, particularly as the animal ages and develops medical issues. Setting aside a portion of your estate to provide funds for the lifetime care of your pet will go a long way to ensuring that your pet continues to enjoy a good standard of care, and their life is not cut short prematurely due to lack of funds to provide necessary veterinary treatment or training. If you don’t have an individual pet caregiver and your estate trustee has to surrender your pets to a rescue organization, having funds from your estate designated for the care of your pets may also help with finding appropriate and timely placement. 

If you are interested in learning more about how you can take steps to ensure the well-being of your pet(s), please fill out a contact form, email [email protected],  or call  (647) 624-2848 to book a free consultation.