There can be legal problems rehoming an animal when its owner dies

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am


Earlier this month, Sally Andersen, founder of Hong Kong Dog Rescue (HKDR), had to re-home a dog that was the surviving member of a household.

'A Chihuahua was found in its apartment after the owner had already been dead for two days,' she says.

The dog was taken to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department where it stayed for a month, before Andersen took it to the HKDR.

According to Andersen, since the dog was microchipped and licensed to the owner, it was considered property and could not be given away or disposed of without consent from the owner. Given that the owner in this specific case had died, next of kin had to be found and contacted, before the Chihuahua could be given to Andersen and her organisation.

This situation, says Andersen, highlighted her own potentially serious problem. 'I am the legal owner of all the dogs [at the HKDR] - 400 of them,' she says. 'I started thinking: 'What would happen if I were to suddenly die?' Would the AFCD try to contact my relatives abroad before trying to rehome them?'

If a dog has not been microchipped, (after the owner has died) the predicament of finding a family member does not arise since the dog's ownership has not been legally established, explains Andersen.

While these types of cases are rare, Andersen received another unfortunate group of dogs. The owner of six adult dogs and three puppies could no longer care for them due to illness.

For the friends and family of the dearly departed possessions often take on significant meaning. Household pets in particular are a living reminder of personal attachment and at a time when family emotions are already high there is the added worry of who will care for the pet. The grief of losing her mother wasn't the only thing Sarah Lott had to deal with this summer. There was also her mother's cat. A cherished pet for the past 14 years, Starlight, was now in need of a new home.

While Lott bonded with Starlight, she couldn't commit to the responsibilities of owning a pet. 'I often work long hours away from home and didn't feel I would be able to provide the sort of interaction a pet would need,' she says. 'My sister already has three cats and my brother has a dog.'

In Lott's search for a new home, she turned to extended family and friends. Soon Starlight had a new home with a mother and her 10-year old daughter but a week later, the cat had to be returned as the child's allergies could not tolerate the dander.

Next, the cat was moved to a temporary foster home, where it started to act out by spraying and leaving little surprises around the house.

Lott's situation is not uncommon. 'We get one or two a month saying that a family member has passed away and a new home is needed,' says vet Mike Bondar at Westside Animal Hospital in Toronto, Canada. 'Usually people surrender pets due to behaviour problems, aggression and spraying.' Bondar adds that owners can find solutions such as anti-anxiety medications for aggression or excessive licking; natural products and synthetic pheromones for spraying.

While many people would expect age to be the major factor in how well a pet adjusts to new surroundings, Bondar says personality has a greater impact.

He suggests when relocating a pet to take along their favourite blanket, toy or dish and try to keep the environment as similar as possible, along with minimising any loud or sudden noises.

As owners usually outlive their furry companions, pets are commonly overlooked in estate planning. Therefore, Lott thinks, like children, pet owners should assign godparents for their pets in the event that the owners go first. And after a month of searching, Lott finally found a new home for Starlight.