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Southwest Japan city devises system to ensure pets cared for if elderly owners die, get ill

Employees at the Koga Municipal Government's environment division are seen speaking with a man who takes care of his deceased neighbor's cats in this photo provided by the Koga Municipal Government in Fukuoka Prefecture.

KOGA, Fukuoka -- In a bid to stop pets being abandoned or uncared for in the event of an elderly owner's death or hospitalization, this southwest Japan city has introduced a system to arrange in advance who will care for animals when their human carers are gone.

    The Koga Municipal Government's environment division, whose remit includes animal welfare issues, and other departments in charge of elderly care have begun working together to check on pet care at senior residents' homes, along with consulting with them about future contingency plans. The initiative, considered a progressive move, could aid in the early discovery of animal hoarding and other societal issues.

    The partnership between the indirectly linked government divisions was triggered by a spate of recent cases in the city where cats were left behind after owners living alone died or went to hospital. In 2017, a man in his mid-60s who lived alone died at home and left behind more than 10 cats. His family living elsewhere could not take in the animals, leaving nearby residents to go to efforts including caring for them and looking for new owners. In a separate 2020 case, a care manager for a man who lived alone and died at home made, for a period, regular visits to the residence to care for a cat left there.

    Cats left at the home of a deceased man in his mid-60s who had lived alone are seen in this photo provided by the Koga Municipal Government in Fukuoka Prefecture.

    Pets can also obstruct the hospitalization of elderly people unable to ask anyone to take care of their animals. In 2020, a woman in her 70s who lives alone refused to spend days at a hospital despite having a stroke because she worried about her two cats and some stray cats she was feeding. Her care manager and other professionals convinced her to go by promising to take care of the animals, and while she was in hospital they went to her home twice a day.

    With these incidents in mind, the city's environment division, its regional comprehensive support center offering welfare and care consultations, its residential care support office and its registered animal-related volunteers -- all groups which often work separately -- came together to launch a new system to support senior residents with pets in March.

    Under the system, the environment division has created a checklist to understand pets' care situation at elderly residents' homes. Among the factors it records are pet numbers, what animals they are, their health, their primary place of veterinary care and whether it has already been decided who will keep or adopt them in the event of the owner's sudden hospitalization or death. As part of efforts to ensure early discovery of animal hoarding or inadequate care, it also asks whether male and female pets of the same species are kept together, whether they are spayed or neutered, if they are excessively thin and if they have tangled, matted fur.

    When care managers visit the homes of elderly people in need of care or support and find they have pets, they review the situation against the items on the checklist. If there are concerns over the animals' living environment and health, and care managers decide support is necessary, they contact the environment division. Its employees and registered volunteers then visit the residence to discuss who would take care of the pets or adopt them, and offer support to foster an environment better suited for pet care. The environment division's Junichi Hanada, 26, who is in charge of the support, said, "To ensure elderly people can live with pets, we would like to expand our efforts to senior residents in general in future so it's not limited only to those needing care or support."

    There have been quite a few cases across Japan in which care environments deteriorate as the number of pets increases at the homes of elderly people whose cognitive function has declined due to dementia or other issues.

    Kensuke Kato, 45, an associate professor in social psychology at Kyushu University of Health and Welfare who is knowledgeable on issues of elderly people and pets, said: "The issue now in the regional welfare field is how to support elderly people who become isolated as pet care difficulties mount up without them realizing. If a system to help follow up on elderly people is established, and experts in various fields get involved like they have in Koga, we will have more options. It's a good point of reference for other local governments."

    (Japanese original by Mayu Suenaga, Kyushu News Department)

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