Ask the Vet - Vallard C. Forsythe, DVM

Can older orphaned dog be ‘re-homed’?

Dear Dr. Forsythe: I need your advice about a delicate subject.  My wife’s sister passed away recently after a long illness and left behind a very sick, very old dog, Samantha.  The problem is, Samantha is 14, blind, barely able to walk, has a really severe heart condition that is expensive to care for, and my sister-in-law didn’t make any provisions to deal with this before her death.  Not only that, but Samantha is, I’m afraid, a “one woman dog” in that she bites and growls at anyone who tries to touch her. The problem is that my wife has been bitten several times by the dog and even needed stitches the last time.  Still, she stubbornly refuses to even consider having Samantha put down, citing that “Samantha just misses her mommy”.  The cost of all the medications for the dog every month is over $100 dollars, but the cost to my wife’s fragile psyche and our marriage seems to be much higher.  I’d appreciate your thoughts on this matter, because I feel like I’m walking on eggshells around the house, terrified of what this little black dog will do next.

- Benny, Novato

Dear Benny: It sounds like you and your wife are living a true nightmare right now, and I want to tell you how sorry I am that you are under so much stress regarding Samantha and the impact she is having on your home.

It is not uncommon for a person to pass away and leave behind a pet with whom they had a very special and tight bond. In this case, where there were no plans set in place for a transfer of the pet to another person, and the previously existing human animal bond was unique and singular, it places the heirs in a tough spot. The stakes are high, and it’s an emotionally charged time following the loss of a loved one.

It sounds like your wife has taken it upon herself the burden of trying to adopt and bond with Samantha in order to get some closure or comfort over the loss of her sister.  While on one hand this is a generous and benevolent act, your wife is really putting herself, and her relationship with you, in jeopardy.  Not only has she been hurt physically, but the stress of trying to force Samantha into accepting her as the new owner has undoubtedly been mentally agitating and downright depressing.

In my opinion, it is time for you to step in and take care of business.  I suggest you involve the following professionals to help counsel your wife and you to find a quick solution to what sounds like an intolerable situation.

1) A good therapist can help your wife deal with the grief and angst and possible guilt she may be feeling surrounding the loss of her sister; getting these feeling out may help her free herself from the need to keep Samantha.

2) A consultation with an animal behaviorist will shed some light on the challenges of “re-homing” a senior pet. If the decision you and your wife make is to move forward with the transition, you will need support and education on how to do it in the safest manner possible.

3) Consult with your veterinarian. If Samantha is truly a medley of expensive and complex medical problems with a poor long-term prognosis and a guarantee of huge expenses, your family veterinarian can give you a realistic assessment on what you can expect in terms of quality of life issues for her and “quality of checkbook” issues for you and your wife.  Nobody wants to have to make decisions about keeping a pet or letting it go based on money, but in many situations, people’s budgets do indeed have to be factored in to what options are on the table for a pet’s future.

I realize that you are smack dab in the middle of a complicated and potentially volatile situation because of the special circumstances surrounding Samantha. It’s very difficult to be living next to a “powder keg” and hoping nothing ignites –so I think the idea of getting some outside help and advice would pay big dividends in containing this situation. I for one do not like the idea of having to sleep “with one eye open,” like you are describing your current life. I wish you the very best and hope that you and your wife will find resolution soon. - Dr.F

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