If I die before my dog...
Have you ever wondered what would happen to your pet if the worst happened to you? It’s one of the things few of us like to think about yet something which all of us should give serious
If you have and elderly dog then maybe the answer to this question, is Elderly rescue. One such rescue is Hilltop Animal Haven, near Kilkhampton in Cornwall.
Hilltop was started in 1986 by Charles Bingham and Gillian Smart with the intention of giving elderly animals a home for life.
What makes them different from the more well known rescues is how they house their animals. Most of the animals that arrive at Hilltop are coming from loving homes, where they have been well
cared for and very much a part of the family. For this reason, both Charles and Gillian have tried to ensure that the transition from home to rescue is as stress free as possible. In order to
do this, they do not place their animals into a kennel or cattery environment, but invite them into their home, where they become part of a large and incredibly loving new family.
The sad reality is that without charities like Hilltop Animal Haven, many elderly animals would be put down every year, just because they were deemed too old for a home.
I was privileged to speak to Sam Bell, (Sanctuary Manager) who has been working for Hilltop for six years now, and looks set to take over from Charlie when he retires.
The first thing that hits you on meeting Sam is her pure devotion and dedication to Hilltop and all that they do.
She had some amusing stories to tell me about the animals in her care.
She starts by telling me about a cantankerous magpie called Ponsunby.
“Well Poncie was hit by a car, and was left with a damaged wing and foot, which meant he was unable to be released back to the wild.
“Poncie is an acquired taste; for instance, if one of the cats catches a mouse, we give it to Poncie, who then likes to give it back to us in bits, and I do mean bits.
“Another one of his annoying habits is his need to have a bath whenever we clean out his aviary, which then leads to him
saturating everything, making it feel like somewhat of a wasted effort.
She smiles contentedly before moving on to the small King Charles spaniel called Billy.
“Billy is nearly eleven years old, and he is a walking dustbin, he eats so fast, that his food has to be thrown across the floor rather than put in a bowl, because he chocks otherwise.
“His all time favourite food is cat poo, hence why you don’t have kisses off of Billy.”
I ask with interest how many animals they currently provide homes for. Sam pauses for a moment, finishes her crisps and asks for a sheet of paper, which she hurriedly uses to calculate
“There are 39 animals and 2 aviaries for the birds, don’t ask me to count them too,” She adds.
“It can’t be easy to take care of so many elderly animals, what would you say was the most challenging aspect of your job?” I asked.
“Medication!” she replies instantly. “At the minute there are only three cats on tablets, but at one point it took about an hour and a half to do all the pills, and that’s twice a day. She
pauses here, her expression sad, as she adds.
“But sadly we’ve lost most of those animals now.”
“It must be hard to lose animals, how do you cope with this?”
“You don’t,” She replies matter-of-factly. “You learn that death is a part of life, it doesn’t make it easier but you can deal with it. She pauses to play with her mobile phone as she
struggles with her emotions; it’s clear she cares deeply about the animals in her care.
“There have been three deaths that have been the hardest,” she continues suddenly, “and that’s because they were unexpected.
“Jack, my favourite cat, had a heart attack in his sleep, Thai had cancer of the spleen, but we didn’t know and he just started to bleed internally, you could see the colour draining from his
tongue and within an hour he was gone, there was nothing the vet could do but sit and wait, because he couldn’t get a vein in order to put him to sleep. And number three was Cassie; she died of a
broken heart, after Gillian passed away,” She says, sadly.
I decide it was time to change the subject, to lighter things, and asked. “What are Hilltop’s hopes for the
“Well, we’ve just bought some more land, it’s just over 12 acres, and we are hoping to start rescuing more ponies, sheep,
“We are in the process of breaking in our four ponies, not to be ridden, just to make them more manageable, as they are too
old for that now.
“However, once we are set up with the new fields, stables and an indoor sand school, we hope to take on more horses that can be broken to be ridden.
“This is so that we can possibly get them out on loan, which will hopefully raise some extra money for the charity and more
importantly provide them with a better quality of life.
“It will also help us to expand in other areas,” she replies, clearly excited.
“Is Hilltop able to raise enough money to cover all its needs?”
“Luckily, we have a lot of loyal supporters, who send regular donations. So generally speaking we get by, and are able to
make some improvements.
“Most of our donations go towards vets’ bills, which is roughly 3-4 hundred pounds a month at present, also food, bedding
and hay for the ponies. What’s left goes towards the expansion of hilltop, which means we are able to help even more animals. She adds with a joyous smile.
“Although money isn’t an issue at the moment, every little bit helps.
“People can also help us by, adopting an animal, offering their time, or by donating unwanted blankets, towels, and newspapers. We are always grateful for any offers of help, in any shape or
“For instance my father comes up and cuts the grass for us, because my legs are too short to reach the pedals, and it’s just too much for Charlie to do
Hilltop Animal Haven isn’t the only rescue out there that caters to older animals, and even if you do not live in the
Cornwall area, there is bound to be a rescue near you that would be willing to take your elderly pet if the need ever arose, or to which you could offer some help. It isn’t all about money and as
Sam has told us there are so many things you could do, even if it is as simple as cutting the grass.
If you would prefer to go to a larger rescue maybe you should consider The Dogs Trust; as well as having special homes for the older dogs in there care; they also have a special card
called a Canine Care Card, which allows you to leave your dog to them when you die. They do not charge for this card, although donations are always nice and of great help.
As the dog trust has a policy to never put a healthy dog down, it makes them the perfect choice if you want to guarantee that your dog has a future after you are gone.
Another great service is the PDSA’s safe hand’s re-homing service. It’s available to PDSA supporters who leave a donation in their will, and will ensure that your dog is found a loving
forever home after you are gone.
They also do wonderful work helping those on low income to cope with vet bills, that otherwise might prove too much to handle.
So hopefully now, you will be able rest a little easier, be prepared, and most importantly enjoy your dogs without worrying about what ifs that might lurk around the corner.
I would like to take a moment to remember Gillian Smart, one of the founders of Hilltop Animal Haven who sadly passed away on the 22nd January 2008. Gillian dedicated her life to the animals
at Hilltop, and will be sadly missed by many.
Why do elderly dogs end up in rescue centres?
· Unexpected death of an owner.
· Owner dies from old age.
· Owners move house and do not want to stress an elderly dog out with a long journey, or cannot have a dog in their
· Some owners can’t cope with the stress, heartache or cost of medical care for a sick elderly pet.
· Circumstances change meaning regardless of an animal’s age, their owner can no longer care for their pet.
There are, however, charities out there that can help you if you find yourself in this situation, allowing you to keep your pet, by helping you to care for them.
The Cinnamon Trust is one such organisation. Check out the contacts box for their details.
How to protect your pet after you’re gone
Regardless of you or your pet’s age you should be prepared should the worst happen. Below are some helpful tips.
· Ask friends and family, it’s always nice to know that our pets are with people we can trust, but be sure to have a
back up, just in case.
· Talk to your vet, who may be able to suggest local rescues that have programmes in place, for this very
· Contact local rescues; be sure that they have a guarantee not to put healthy dogs down.
· Check out the useful contacts box.
· Above all don’t be afraid to ask questions, a good rescue will be more than happy to help.
How can you help your local rescue?
If you can’t leave a donation in your will and want to help the charity that will be helping your dog, or just wish to help a local charity, then here is a list of things you may be able to
· A donation of money
· A donation of toys, food, blankets, or other items of use.
· Walking dogs.
· Offering a hand with repairs or maintenance of the premises.
· Offering yourself as a volunteer in your spare time.
· Leaving a money donation or item donation in your will.
· Sell old items you no longer want, and donate some of the proceeds to the charity.
· Or maybe if you have the time, arrange a fundraiser for your chosen rescue.
If in doubt ring and ask.
Hilltop Animal Haven
Registered charity number: 295206
Nr Bude, Cornwall.
The Dogs Trust
17 Wakley street
020 7837 0006
(8:30 AM – 5:30 PM MON – FRI)
Call 0800 731 2502
10 Market Square,
Telephone: (01736) 757900 Fax: (01736) 757010
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