Rosie's Trust: The charity that helps sick and frail owners stay with their beloved pets

A unique Northern Ireland charity is helping people including the elderly and those undergoing cancer treatment to look after their pets, enabling humans and beloved animals to stay together when they otherwise might not manage to do so. Jenny Lee finds out more

Belfast pensioner Sylvia Cade at home with her dogs Rosie and Blossom. Picture by Hugh Russell

A NORTHERN Ireland charity is providing a lifeline to animal lovers who, through age, disability and/or illness, are struggling to care for their pets.

Recognising the bond between owners and their companion pets, Rosie's Trust, founded in 2015 by former nurse Bronagh O'Neill, aims to enable owners and pets to stay together when their relationship is threatened by the impact of the owner's terminal illness, advancing age or acute cancer treatment.

It was while she was volunteering with the Marie Curie Helper Service that Bronagh supported a young man, Michael, who was receiving palliative care for terminal cancer. Seeing that he was unable to walk and care for his dog Finn and therefore that both were in distress, Bronagh began to walk Finn for him.

"For a lot of people, their animal is their only constant; it's their security and their friend. We give the owner what they need for as long as they need it, until they or their animal dies. Michael is sadly no long with us but he was so delighted with the help and to share his last days with Finn."

Following this experience, Bangor woman Bronagh carried out research with a number of charities, vets and animal sanctuaries to see if there was a need in Northern Ireland for a full-time charitable service which would help owners in need and their pets to stay together. The answer was a resounding yes.

Four years later Rosie's Trust – named after the first dog Bronagh owned – has supported 115 beneficiaries, 248 pets and recruited 282 volunteers throughout the north.

Rosie's Trust offers "peace of mind and practical help for people and love, care and safety for pets" through walking their dogs, emptying cat litters, taking pets on vet visits, providing short-short term animal fostering when a person is in hospital, bringing pets to visit their owners at the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre or providing long term adoption following an owner's death.

"You are minimising stress in both the pet and their owner and enabling them to stay together," adds animal lover Bronagh.

The charity offers its services free 365 days a year and often receives referrals from health professionals, including occupational therapists, as well as charities like Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie and Age NI. Bronagh, who gave up her job as a health and social care service co-ordinator with the British Red Cross, admits the charity "has taken over my life".

"It's a very labour-intensive service. We were delighted to receive a National Lottery grant at the end of 2017 that enabled us to employ a manager and three development officers, and expand the service," adds Bronagh.

Scientific research has proven that the relationship people have with their pets can provide an emotional heaven when trying to cope with illness. One of the many people the charity has helped is east Belfast woman Sylvia Cade, who lives on her own with her West Highland Terriers Blossom (12) and Rosie (6).

"I'm not able to get out and about as much as I used to be. I would be so lonely without my dogs. They are very affectionate and a comfort during the day and great for security at night," says the 69-year-old, who is awaiting a corneal transplant to help combat her failing eyesight,

Sylvia has kept Westies for 34 years and is proud to point out that one, Teddy, was a best-in-breed champion at Crufts in 1993.

Not able to face life without her beloved pooches but aware of her failing mobility, Sylvia was delighted to be introduced to Rosie's Trust three years ago and now has volunteers walk Blossom and Rosie three times a week.

Their visits not only benefit the dogs' wellbeing but also brings their owners companionship.

"The dogs love their visit but so do I. After their walk the volunteers will often stay and have a chat and a cup of tea. I really look forward to that time together," says Sylvia, who also says her worries about the dogs' future have been alleviated by the charity.

"They also give me the security that if I have to go to hospital the volunteers will look after the dogs and when my time comes they will find them a good home."

Rosie's Trust is bringing renowned English dog trainer Jan Fennell to Belfast as part of a fundraising event, giving local dog owners an insight into why a dog does what it does and providing advice on how to shape desired behaviour and quietly correct undesirable behaviours.

"When I started Rosie's Trust I met many different dogs with issues such as pulling on leads, barking at everything and fussy eating," Bronagh says.

Having herself put into practice the techniques advocated by Jan in her books and DVDs, she is fully convinced by her methods of working with dogs "without the use of force, fear, frustration or gadgets".

:: For more information about Rosie's Trust see An Afternoon with Jan Fennell takes place at Stranmillis College, Belfast, on Saturday February 16 at 3pm. Tickets (£15) can be booked by searching Rosie's Trust on Facebook or via

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