According to a recent article on BusinessInsider.com, there are some surprising new figures about American households and their pets. “In 2011, Americans spent a record $50.8 billion on pets, according to the American Pet Products Association. We share our homes with an estimated 86 million cats, 78 million dogs, 16 million birds and 160 million fish.”

These numbers perhaps aren’t so shocking when you consider how the role of animals in our lives has changed over the past few decades. Animals have gone from being mere pets or farm animals to being companions, guides, status symbols, and in most cases beloved members of the family. As such, most pet owners want to provide for them as they would a human member of the family.

Unfortunately, as mentioned in the article, “While we may consider our pets family members, our legal system considers them property. And because estate law prohibits us from leaving property (money, real estate, etc.) to property, we must instead provide for our pets through human intermediaries.” The best way to do this is through a pet trust, in which you can nominate a loving caregiver for your pet, as well as set aside some money to be distributed to the caregiver—either in one lump sum or in smaller distributions throughout the life of your pet.

A pet trust may be the most reliable way to ensure your pet will be provided for, but it certainly isn’t the only way. Another option is to simply name a caregiver for your pet in your will or trust and then include the caregiver as a recipient of funds in your will. For example: “If my cat Fluffy is alive at my death, I leave $3,000 for her care to Mary Johnson.” If you have more than one person who might serve as caregiver you should consider also naming back-up caregivers in the event that your first choice is unwilling or unable.

Pets provide so much unconditional love and support during our lives, the last thing we want is to leave them without a friend to care for them after our deaths. The next time you review your estate plan or talk to your attorney, be sure you’ve included a provision for your pet.