One of the most important things you can do for your cat is to have a set plan for them if you happen to become seriously ill, injured, or if you die first.
A lot of people are very uncomfortable when thinking about their own death. The unfortunate truth is that 100% of us will eventually die, and there’s no way around that. But, what happens to our cats when we die?
Tragically, when an owner dies many cats are surrendered to local animal control centers, shelters, or simply let outside to fend for themselves in the wild. Depending on the age and health of your cat, any of these scenarios can be an immediate death sentence.
Assuming your friends or family will step in and care for your cat might make you feel good emotionally, but does not actually guarantee that your cat will be cared for by those people. Your friends and family may love visiting with your cat, but visiting is very different from accepting physical, emotional, medical, and financial responsibility for them.
What can you do to protect your cat if they outlive you? Make a plan to include the following things:
- Find an emergency caretaker
- Microchip your cat and keep the information updated
- Create written instructions for your caretaker or emergency services people to follow
- Identify a legal guardian to take permanent responsibility for your cat
- Obtain legal documentation to set and enforce the guardianship arrangement
- Create a financial plan for care for your cat after you die
- Set up multiple ways to notify people of your arrangements
- Periodically review and update your plan
An emergency caretaker is someone who can be called at any time to provide temporary care in the form of feeding, watering, medicating, and cleaning litter boxes. The emergency caretaker may or may not be the same person who will act as your cat’s legal guardian.
You should have at least one person who can act as an emergency caretaker for your cat. Ideally this would be someone who does not live with you but who does have 24/7 access to your home.
A spouse, partner, or roommate should be able to act as an emergency caretaker, but it is important to have another person identified in case the person you’re living with is incapacitated at the same time that you are, or is otherwise unavailable to provide care.
Your emergency caretaker should be instructed on what your plans are for your cat, and where to find written instructions regarding their care.
Microchip Your Cat
One incredibly important step to making sure your cat is protected is getting them microchipped and then making sure their microchip information stays up-to-date, and that the chip itself is functioning.
The microchip manufacturer allows you to add yourself AND an emergency contact to their registry. Having an emergency caretaker listed on the microchip means that if anything happens to you, and if your written instructions aren’t found/followed, there’s still a chance your cat can make its way to their new guardian. Generally this situation is most likely to happen if you live alone. When police or EMS go to your residence and see you have a cat they’re incredibly likely to take the cat to your local animal shelter. The shelter will scan for a microchip and contact the emergency contact person listed in the chip’s profile.
Another often overlooked thing about microchips is that they provide your cat’s new guardian with their name. Many times cats end up in shelters or with guardians who know nothing about them, and often don’t even know their names – this is especially common if they came from a home with multiple cats. Simply being able to use a cat’s real name goes a long way in helping them to feel safe and comfortable in their new homes, and it is sadly common for cats to lose that bit of their identity when their owner dies if they are not microchipped.
Once your cat has been microchipped it’s also important to test the chip periodically to make sure it’s still functioning correctly. This is very easy to do. Simply ask your veterinarian to scan the chip when you bring your cat in for visits. Microchips are always tested before being implanted and immediately afterwards, but beyond that they’re almost never tested. Microchips can migrate away from the part of the body where they were inserted, making them difficult to find, and the chips themselves can sometimes totally fail. Having your chip scanned at least once every year is a great idea because you can be assured that anyone who scans your cat can find the chip, and that the chip is sending the proper signal to the chip reader. A microchip is totally useless if it doesn’t send a signal or can’t be found. It’s not a common problem, but it can happen so it’s a great idea to test for it and make sure that everything is functioning properly.
At the same time your chip is verified you should also make a point of checking/updating your information with the microchip manufacturer so that they always have current information on file about you, your cat, and your emergency contacts.
You know your cat’s routine, but your emergency caretaker probably has no idea about the details of your cat’s habits and schedule. Having a written set of instructions for the care of your cat, and having those instructions in plain view and easy to follow is very important.
In my house I have the instructions on the front of my refrigerator inside paper protectors. I have 2 packets, side by side.
Emergency Contact Page
- The contact person for my own emergency needs including medical and financial decision making.
- The contact information for my cat’s emergency caretaker
- The list of my veterinarians
- Primary and Emergency
- The list of my cats with basic descriptions and health problems
- This is perhaps the single most important piece of information you can include on this page.
Roscoe’s story shows why listing the descriptions and number of your cats is important.
Other Important Info
Additional pages in this packet contain details on:
- Where to locate medical files for my cats
- Where to locate all the supplies for my cats
- Favorite hiding spots my cats like to use
- Legal guardian information for who my emergency caretaker should contact to take permanent custody of the cats
- A quick list with the details for any/all medications and supplements my cats take with instructions on when/how they are taken
- This page also has notes about how each cat prefers to take their pills and which cats receive subq fluids
- List includes special indicators if the medications are refrigerated so that nothing is forgotten
This page includes details on the times of day they’re accustomed to being fed, what foods they like to eat, favorite snacks, etc.
Basic Behavior Notes
I’ve also included a brief description of each cat’s normal behaviors, likes/dislikes, play habits, litter box habits, and anything else that might be useful to a new person who is unfamiliar with them.
Aside from an emergency caretaker you should also have someone who can act as a legal guardian for your cat. The guardian is a person or organization who is tasked with taking over the care of your cat. The guardian will take physical custody and financial responsibility for their care.
Hearts That Purr Feline Guardians has a very good explanation about what guardianship entails and why it is important.
Some guardianship organizations that I know of are:
- Hearts That Purr Feline Guardians, Arizona, USA
- Cat Protections Guardian Service, Bracknell and Wokingham Districts, England, UK
- The Cinnamon Trust, England and Wales, UK
There are probably a lot of other guardianship programs around the world. Check with your local shelters and rescue groups and you should be able to find something in your area.
Having legal documentation to solidify the guardianship arrangement for your cat is necessary to guarantee that your wishes for your cat will be honored after your death. Typically this will be in the form of a Last Will and Testament.
Having a Will prepared by a qualified estate attorney can be expensive. So, if you don’t have a Will you can start by writing a specific set of instructions for who should take care of your cat and under what circumstances. To have the best chance of this document being honored both you and the intended guardian should sign it. Preferably you will have this notarized as well.
Depending on your financial situation and the agreement you have reached with your feline guardian you may also be making financial arrangements to cover the cost of care for your cat after you die.
It is important that the financial arrangements you make are legally enforceable so that your chosen guardian can’t just accept the money and abandon your cat. It’s also important to make sure that any money you set aside for a guardian isn’t contested or taken away by anyone else who would inherit from your estate. The best way to ensure that your financial arrangements are protected is to work with an estate attorney to create the necessary documentation for this arrangement.
If you don’t have any money to leave behind for your cat’s care you may want to look into purchasing a life insurance policy for yourself if you don’t already have one. Setting your cat’s legal guardian as the beneficiary is one way to provide for your cat after you’re gone.
It would be best to have a lawyer help you figure out the best financial arrangement, but if that isn’t possible, then just do the best you can.
Tip: When making financial arrangements, assume that the person or organization who will receive your money is completely corrupt and totally unethical. Try to think of any way that they could steal your money without providing care for your cat. If you think of the ways things can go wrong you can make a better plan to protect your cat from it.
Notify People of Your Pets and Plans
If you are seriously ill, injured, or if you die unexpectedly, it is important that any person around you can quickly discover that you have a cat who is in need immediate of care, and can follow the plans that you have laid out for them. Here are some things you can do:
- Set the lock screen on your cell phone with a message like “My cat is home alone, call (name of emergency caretaker)”
- Be sure your emergency caretaker is set as an Emergency Contact in your phone so that anyone can call them without having to get your phone unlocked first
- Put a card in your wallet right behind your driver’s license or identification card with the same message
- First responders (police, fire, EMS) and hospital staff are trained to look for in wallets and behind identification cards for emergency contact information
- Have a custom made key chain with with message your cat is home alone
- Design a custom phone case with that message
- Keep written instructions freely visible in your home about your pets
- Add window decals to your home so that first responders are aware of your cats
- If you’re friendly with your neighbors, make sure they know you have cats
- If you rent, make sure your landlord is aware that you have cats and that you have a specific plan for their care should anything happen to you
- If you like jewelry, consider having a custom piece made that includes the “my cat is home alone message”
- Make sure your co-workers know that you have a cat and a plan. If you’re friendly with your co-workers you can also show them how to find the contact info for your emergency caretaker
If you rent, it is imperative that someone other than yourself has access to your home AND that your landlord also has documentation showing that the person you’ve named is approved to have access. If the person has their own key then the landlord shouldn’t need documentation. But it is better to be safe and make sure the landlord has documentation in case their key no longer works or in case they’re stopped and questioned by the landlord when they do access your place. And if they don’t have their own key then the landlord MUST know about them because the landlord will need to provide access to your home. In many states in the US, and in much of the world, cat are considered “property” which means that there are often laws that specifically prevent your landlord or anyone else accessing your home to care for them or to remove them in the event that you’re incapacitated. Legally classifying pets as property has led to the suffering and death of many animals simply because an emergency contact person was not given access to care for them.
Periodic Review and Updates
Creating your plan the first time is the hard part. After your plan is created all you really need to do is make sure to keep it updated.
It’s a good idea to review your documents at least once per year and make any updates that are needed.
In my house the thing that changes most often is the mediation list for my cats, so that is updated almost every month. My other documents haven’t changed much since they were first created a couple years ago.