It is a well-known fact that Japan’s population is aging, with the government trying to implement measures to deal with a so-called “silver society” wherein the number of people past retirement age outstrips the number of young people in the workforce. As well as the big, oft-discussed issues of pensions, healthcare and so on, there are a number other smaller, less obvious issues that are sure to impact Japan in other way. One such issue is that of pets, and the number of domestic animals being left behind when their elderly owners die is on the increase.
Unfortunately there are many sad cases where an elderly person passes away in solitude, without any friends or family to check on them. In these situations, the body may not be discovered for weeks, or even months, and after that there is still the problem of dealing with the deceased’s belongings and home, which is often left to specialist estate liquidation companies.
An employee of Guardian, one such liquidation company, explained that it is not unusual to find pets in the houses of the deceased. A recent example they recounted was when they entered a residence in Kanagawa where a man of around 60 years of age had passed away in his bed and had not been discovered for four months. Inside the house were six cats who had been surviving with just a little water in the bathtub. The animals were in a sorry state, emaciated and covered in blood from fighting.
These cats had probably been well-loved pets during their owner’s lifetime, but had no one to provide for them after the man’s death, and had to fend for themselves, squabbling over anything they could find to stay alive. In these situations the animals will often be passed on to animal control, where the fate that awaits them is usually euthanization.
According to the Ihin Seirisi Nintei Kyokai (Association of Estate Liquidators) in Hokkaido, around 20 to 30% of their requests related to elderly people who have died or gone into hospital alone concern pets. In the year 2012, the Tokyo Animal Welfare Center (animal control) took in 550 pets that had owners (i.e. not strays or feral). In 22% of cases it was because their owner had died, and in 18% the owner had been hospitalized, meaning that 40% of cases were related to owners, most of them elderly, having no one to care for their pets once they had became unable to. A representative for the organization said that the number of pets they were taking in due to their owners’ old age was likely to continue to increase. They are looking into publishing a pamphlet that encourages owners to think about the necessity of making arrangements for their pets in the case that they are no longer able to care for them.
Some people have pointed out that this is not necessarily a problem limited to the elderly, but more generally to people who live alone and have little contact with others. In the case of the 60-year-old man mentioned above, in today’s society this is still a very young age to die. The issue in this case was that his death was not discovered for four months, and so neither were his animals. People living alone may also be more likely to have multiple pets as company, further exacerbating the issue. On top of all that is the overall lack of concern about animal welfare in Japan which, although showing signs of improvement in recent years, still hampers efforts to educate and engage people when it comes to the plight of these creatures.
Owning a pet is a commitment for the rest of that pet’s life, so it is important for pet owners to make arrangements for what will happen to their animals in the case that they are unable to care for them any longer. The task of spreading awareness of this issue is currently being left to animal charities, but if the problem continues to escalate, as many seem to expect it to as Japan’s society continues to age, we could see it featuring more heavily in government informative campaigns in the future. This is a problem that touches on both issues of animal welfare and the treatment of the elderly, two very vulnerable groups within society, and we hope that with increased exposure of some of the sad cases companies and charities have encountered, steps will be made towards a solution.
For English-language resources on animal welfare in Japan, please check out the following organizations: Animal Refuge Kansai, HEART Tokushima, Japan Cat Network
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