Tiger, a big, long-haired orange tabby cat.
Courtesy of Karen Lange

In the last years of my mother’s life, her cat Tiger was constantly by her side. Every night, the big, long-haired orange tabby followed her to bed and slept on top of the quilt. During the day, he sat on the floor by the kitchen table when she ate and by her reclining chair when she watched TV, occasionally reaching up to paw her for treats, which she delivered in handfuls. As my mom became less and less able to care for Tiger, she begged to keep him in the condo where she lived alone. “Tiger is my friend.”

Everyone who came to the condo praised his friendly personality. The groomer who every summer gave him a lion cut (short everywhere but the head and tip of the tail) offered more than once to adopt him. My mom’s hairdresser promised she would take Tiger when the time came. But we made no firm plan for what would happen. We would learn too late that you can’t wait until a family member or friend is dying to find a home for their pet.

Only when my mother went into what turned out to be just three days in hospice, did my brother and I start contacting prospective adopters. Right after my mother died, the hairdresser said yes. But the next day she said no. The groomer said no, as did others. I lived six states away and had a cat at home who did not get along with other cats.

I had given my mother’s cat, whom she loved so much, to people I didn’t even know.

Tiger was 12 and in good health. I arranged to take him to a local shelter that adopts out a high percentage of its animals. Unbeknownst to me, my brother, who had left town, advertised Tiger on Craigslist. A lot of people responded, including a man who lived nearby and said he had a wife and children and a young cat. The night before I planned to depart, grieving and overwhelmed and knowing there was a small chance Tiger might be euthanized if I took him to the shelter, I handed him over to the man’s wife, along with food and treats and bowls, litter and a litterbox and all the veterinary records I could find.

The following morning, when I tried repeatedly to reach the man and his wife to check on Tiger, they did not respond. Worry grew until I was sobbing: I had given my mother’s cat, whom she loved so much, to people I didn’t even know. Nine months later, heartsick (I still cannot reach the couple), I am hoping my story and expert advice can help others.

Making preparations

Animal welfare advocates advise everyone to have a plan for how their pet will be cared for in case of death, sickness or disability. They suggest setting up a trust to pay for expenses and creating a formal document that names a guardian. “We all see the posts on Facebook when someone has passed away,” says Peggy Hoyt, a Florida attorney specializing in pet-related estate issues and the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Animal Care Trust USA. “Pets are like children—you don’t give your children to just anyone.”

But what about pets of family or friends nearing the end of their lives? While caregivers don’t have ownership of these pets and may not have financial power of attorney (pets are considered property), experts say caregivers can still make plans for these animals’ futures.

Vicki Stevens, director of program management and communications for companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States, says it’s important to put adoption offers in writing, so that people who offer future homes for pets understand the commitment they are making. A formal agreement can also include information about the pet and a pledge to let you know if the adopter ever has to give up the pet. It should be confirmed every year, because circumstances change. And it’s a good idea to have at least one backup adopter.

Don’t rely on casual comments, says Anna West, HSUS senior director of media relations, who has a formal commitment to care for a relative’s pets. “Talk about the practical considerations to make sure they’re serious.”

If, despite the best plans, adopters back out, you can ask them to foster the pet to give you more time to find a home, Stevens says. If you cannot find friends or family to take the pet, you can use rehoming sites such as Adopt a Pet’s Rehome and Home to Home Animal Adoption to search for a home on social media.

Don’t rush, Stevens says. “You need to make sure your gut feels right.”

That might mean talking on the phone or exchanging emails, says Lindsay Hamrick, HSUS director of shelter outreach and engagement. It could even mean visiting a potential adopter’s home (especially if they have other animals, to check whether they will get along with the new pet).

The right approach can lead to a happy ending, says Stevens. After her father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and moved into assisted living, she put up flyers in the facility to find a home for Kinski, his beloved 11-year-old cinnamon-and-black tabby. When Stevens’ father-in-law died four months later, a nurse at the care facility had already adopted Kinski. Over the years, the nurse stayed in Stevens’ life, sending her cards at holidays. When Kinski died, the nurse let Stevens know.

For the nurse, the cat was a gift. “Thank you so much for choosing me to be Kinski’s mom,” she wrote. “She has brought a lot of love and joy into my life.”

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