Pets given a reprieve after their owners die

By Jon Welch
BBC News Online

Media caption,
Laddie's owner wanted him to be put down after she died, but he now has a new home

Britain is a nation of animal lovers but funeral directors say they are increasingly being asked to arrange for healthy pets to be put down. So should owners be able to take their pets with them to the grave?

Seven-year-old Laddie is the perfect companion to owners Dorothy and Barney Squirrell.

He's a healthy, happy Cairn Terrier in the prime of his life but his story could have been very different.

When planning her funeral, Laddie's previous owner asked for him to be put down when she died and buried in her coffin with her.

She was worried about who would look after Laddie once she was gone.

Funeral director Mark Skinner understood her concerns, but persuaded her there was an alternative.

'A lovely dog'

"I was quite shocked but not surprised. As an animal lover myself, you do worry what will happen to your animals if you are not there to look after them," said Mr Skinner, who runs Mark Skinner Funeral Service of Thetford, Norfolk.

"I thought it was rather sad because he was a young dog, a lovely dog, and I was able to convince her that that needn't happen and that we could re-home Laddie for her.

"I guaranteed her that if we couldn't find a him a good home, we would actually be prepared to look after him ourselves. I think she felt reassured that we were able to do that for her."

Mr Skinner said he could remember about a dozen similar requests, but on each occasion he managed to persuade clients to re-homing their pet was more humane.

Image caption,
Funeral director Mark Skinner said he understood pet owner's anxiety about who would look after their animals after they had died

A spokeswoman for the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) said clients "occasionally" asked for pets to be put to sleep in order to be buried with their owners, but was not aware of it ever actually happening.

She said the organisations had no specific guidelines on the subject, but that, if asked, funeral directors would try to establish the reasons behind the request and offer an alternative solution.

'Here for animals'

Ana Xavier, of Willows Vets, of Hellesdon, near Norwich, said she received such requests about once a month.

"Sometimes people are going into hospital and are concerned they are not going to make it," she said.

Vets could often come under pressure from owners, she said.

"I've had a client say 'If you don't put her to sleep, I will throw her out of the window.'

"I would not put a healthy animal to sleep unless I truthfully thought the quality of life for that animal would go down dramatically.

"I've refused to do it. I'm here for the animal."

Image caption,
Dogs Trust offers the Canine Care Card and other animal charities operate similar schemes

'Extreme sensitivity'

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' code of conduct says a vet's primary obligation is to relieve an animal's suffering, but that owners' wishes and circumstances must also be considered.

"To refuse an owner's request for euthanasia may add to the owner's distress and could be deleterious to the welfare of the animal," it says.

"Where, in all conscience, a veterinary surgeon cannot accede to a client's request for euthanasia, he or she should recognise the extreme sensitivity of the situation and make sympathetic efforts to direct the client to alternative sources of advice."

According to the RSPCA, about 70,000 owners die each year without making arrangements for their pets in their wills.

Mr Skinner was able to find Laddie a new home with Mr and Mrs Squirrell, of Bardwell, Suffolk, and now he and their other Cairn Terrier, Kate, are inseparable.

"There's no way on earth he needed to be put down," said Mrs Squirrell.

'Care card'

"She (his previous owner) must have been distraught to come to that conclusion. She genuinely wanted the very best for him.

"She socialised him superbly and if she hadn't cared for him she wouldn't have bothered doing that."

But the funeral firm felt it needed back-up in case it couldn't find a home for other client's pets, and enlisted the help of Dogs Trust.

"We understand that people are very concerned about the welfare of their animals and want to know what will happen to them if they pass away, but we would like to encourage anyone who is thinking of having their animal put to sleep at their time of death to think of other options," said charity spokeswoman Kate Brewster.

The charity offers a "Canine Care Card", a free service that ensures that when an owner dies, their dog is taken into its care until a new, loving home can be found.

Other animal charities offer similar services. The RSPCA's is called Home for Life, while Blue Cross offers Pets into Care.

The schemes ensure that rather than accompany their owners on their final journey, man's best friend can become another person's best friend

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