Japan sees pet “guardianship” boom amid ageing population

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Pets have been shown to improve physical and mental well-being for older people which is why they worry so much about what may happen to their furry friends if they are no longer able to care for them. [Source: Shutterstock]

More older pet owners in Japan are utilising “guardianship” services for their dogs and cats in case they cannot look after them upon losing their abilities, going into care or death.

This follows fresh news from the Japanese Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry which announced the number of people aged 65 and older reached a record high of 29.1% while those over 80 made up 10% of Japan’s population this week.

Pets are hugely important for older people all over the world but they also support resilience during ageing as research shows pet owners are less likely to decline psychologically and more likely to overcome physical and emotional hurdles. 

Without planning, pets can be left unattended in empty homes when people die outside of the house without a valid Will, or if people have health issues that make it difficult to communicate with others and tell them about the pets they can no longer take care of.

A non-profit organisation, Tomonowa, in central Japan has provided such services through a mutual aid group to assist owners struggling to find reliable places to entrust their pets. 

Naoko Taketomi, who is in her late 70s, and her husband decided to join the organisation for the sake of their Shiba Inu dog Riki who has given the couple a renewed sense of purpose in their lives. The future of their fur baby began becoming a concern for the ageing couple which prompted them to sign up when it first launched in 2017.

Organisation Members pay an initial fee of 100,000 yen ($690) as well as a monthly membership fee of 1,000 yen. Lifelong care costs would set members back at least 1 million yen.

While the costs required for each pet may vary, Tomonowa’s method of averaging these costs among all members reduces the financial burden on pet owners compared to using ordinary boarding services.

As of August, Tomonowa has taken care of a total of six dogs and cats, with some adopted out to new owners.

With few support options available for those who can no longer look after their pets in Japan, more animal support organisations have also begun offering guardianship services to give older Japanese people peace of mind. 

Cafe Gatto is a cat shelter cafe in southwestern Japan that has received several care enquiries from older pet owners or their loved ones.  

The cafe has since started a mutual aid program that promises to look after a cat for members who pay a monthly fee of 3,000 yen for at least three years, in addition to 500,000 yen that is needed to accommodate the animal at the cafe when the owners are no longer able to care for it.

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Cafe Gatto. [Source: Facebook]

Do we have these programs in Australia?

Australia has also been establishing similar innovative pet engagement and support models to assist older people who have concerns about their companion animals and keep them connected for as long as possible. 

The Office for Ageing Well conducted their Pets and Older People: Bridging the Pet or No Pet Divide project in 2021 and joined the national push for more aged care facilities to allow residents to bring their pets with them when they go into care. 

In the program’s findings, researchers recommended the consideration of pet-inclusive public access in the design of places, spaces and buildings – especially in retirement and aged care facility communities. They also said an ageing service system design that allows for emergency pet fostering in aged care will support older pet owners to age well.

Attorneys have realised just how much older people hold their furry friends close to their hearts and have prompted older people to include a clause about the future of their pet in their Will. NSW Trustee & Guardian attorneys have said they are seeing more and more people adding provisions to their Will to accommodate their pets’ future care.

You can also obtain a free pet emergency card through the RSPCA to carry in your wallet with information about you, your emergency contacts and your pet. If you can’t return home to care for your pet, this card can alert those around you that your pet needs care.

The RSPCA also offers their Home Ever After Program, where the RSPCA cares for animals after their owner has passed away. All new homes and foster parents are carefully selected to ensure that your pets will continue to enjoy good quality care. Home Ever After is a free program offered to animal lovers who include a gift in their Will for the RSPCA.

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