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Never Leave a Pet Behind, Either!

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Duke the border collie says "Please don't forget us!"

At our new station, I met a lady with two gorgeous and sweet-tempered German shepherds.  Both were assistance dogs, and when she told me about their background, she mentioned that both had been abandoned and rescued.  “Who would ever abandon such beautiful, affectionate dogs?” I asked.  She told me that the rescue group suspected their former owner had probably been a soldier who left them behind when he or she deployed.

Unfortunately, the nature of military lifestyle sometimes puts families in situations which can make leaving a pet behind in one way or another seem like the only option.  Single soldiers facing a deployment or a PCS move which will have them living in a barracks room instead of off-post sometimes “leave their pets because they have no one to keep them at home,” according to a 2005 article in USA Today.  Even married soldiers who deploy may leave a pet behind if their spouses plan to stay with non-pet-friendly family during the deployment, develop a serious illness, or simply become overwhelmed.  Families preparing for a PCS move, especially overseas, sometimes also abandon their pets rather than seek pet-friendly housing or follow the procedures for transporting an animal overseas.

Abandonment and Dumping

Outright abandonment- simply leaving a pet in a home or yard when the dwelling is vacated, or “dumping” it out of a car somewhere- is less common, but it does happen.  Depending on where you live, abandoning an animal this way may be a felony, and it is illegal nearly everywhere.  In addition to civilian charges, service members caught dumping or abandoning a pet can also be charged under Article 134, “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the Armed Forces,” and efforts are underway to make animal cruelty, including dumping and abandonment, a specific Uniform Code of Military Justice offense.

Besides the legal consequences, the simple fact is that domestic cats and dogs have been bred to depend on humans for sustenence and survival, and most cannot survive on their own.  Pets abandoned in a home or yard usually die of starvation or dehydration after extended suffering.  Dumped pets are very likely to starve, be attacked by another animal, be killed or seriously injured by a car, or otherwise meet a tragic end.  Sadly, in these case, the animal’s best case scenario usually involves getting picked up by local authorities and ending up in an animal shelter, which is often only marginally more pleasant and only slightly less likely to be fatal.

Animal Shelters

Most pets left behind by departing families are dropped off at local animal shelters.  Many families mistakenly think that dropping their dog or cat off at a shelter is a humane and responsible option; this is wrong.  Animal shelters come in two varieties- traditional shelters and no-kill shelters, and neither of them is a great place for your pet.

At traditional animal shelters, including those run by most local Animal Control departments, living conditions for your pet will probably not be pleasant or comfortable.  Most shelter workers are dedicated, compassionate people who work very hard to provide the best situation and outcome possible for every animal that comes into their care, but funding and space are very limited.  Your dog or cat will spend nearly its entire day and night in a tiny enclosure, receiving a minimum of attention and surrounded by other frightened, stressed, possibly ill or aggressive animals.  Unless it is adopted very quickly, your pet will most likely be euthanized- killed- within three to ten days, depending on its breed, age, temperament, and health.

At a no-kill shelter, living conditions are likely to be just as unpleasant, but at least your pet will survive.  Unfortunately, your pet can be taken in by a no-kill shelter only if space is available.  When the shelter is full, as many of them often are due to even more limited space and funding than traditional shelters, your pet may be turned away and forced to go to a traditional animal shelter.

Have a Plan – Save a Life

Fortunately, it is possible- and easier than you think- to avoid having to put your pet and your family through the distress that comes with abandoning a companion.  Deployments and PCS moves seldom happen on short notice in most units, so there is no reason not to make decisions early and plan ahead for your pet’s care.  You can avoid abandonment with just a little preparation and planning in advance.  This will save you and your family some emotional distress, and it may also save the life of your furry companion.

Your first step should be to make a Care Plan for your pet.  The military requires service members to have a Family Care Plan on file for dependent children in the event of deployment, injury, or death; your dog or cat is also a dependent member of your household, and you should have a similar care plan in place.  Find a reliable family member or trusted friend who can commit to taking in your pet in the event of an unforseen contingency.  Then find an equally reliable and committed backup for this person.  Just like with your Family Care Plan, check with your designated caregivers periodically to make sure they are still willing and able to care for your pet.  Keep your Care Plan current.

If the situation you face involves a PCS move or other relocation, remember that you can and should take your dog or cat with you to your new station.  If you are relocating overseas, your base’s veterinarian is familiar with the vaccinations, paperwork, and procedures required to transport an animal to your new station; most off-post vets, especially in military communities, also have the knowledge to help you with the process.  Planning ahead can help you budget for the costs involved, the same way you budget for car repairs or new furniture.  Regardless of where you are going, plan ahead and give yourself time to find pet-friendly housing options.  The housing office at your new station can help you with your search, especially if you give yourself and them enough time.

If you are deploying and your Care Plan has fallen through, help is available from a variety of nonprofit programs which have been established in recent years to provide temporary foster care for the pets of deployed service members.  The Military Pets Foster Project by NetPets.org is one great example.  Remember that it is very difficult for these programs to find a loving temporary home for your pet on short notice (although if you are deployed on short notice, it is worth trying, and they will make every effort), so it is important that you plan ahead and contact the program in advance.

If all else fails, most no-kill shelters maintain a waiting list.  Make your decision about your dog or cat in time to get a place on the waiting list a few months in advance, so that you can take your pet to the shelter when a space is available, instead of waiting until the day you leave to drop your pet off only to be turned away by a full house.  This way, your companion will at least have a safe place to wait for a new home.

The important thing to remember is that bringing an animal into your home is an acceptance of long-term responsibility for that animal.  Part of your responsibility to your animal companions is including their care in your budget and logistical planning.  No living creature is disposable.  Please don’t treat them as though they are.

A 2010 article in the Ft. Leavenworth Lamp contains a great reminder:

“Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines don’t treat comrades that way, especially not those who depend on us for their very lives.”