In American society, most people regard their pets as a part of their family. Some even consider them like their children, if their children had fur (or scales, or feathers — you get the point).
That’s why when we lose our pets, we mourn their loss much like we mourn the loss of other family members or close friends. They become an integral part of our lives, and we grieve for the fact that our lives will never be the same once they are gone.
But although most people outlive their household pets, many don’t prepare for their eventual passing and are left with sudden choices to make regarding end-of-life care. That’s why we’ve created a guide to help you prepare yourself in the event you lose an animal you love.
Deciding to Euthanize
Many people will reach a point with their pets when euthanasia is the best option for the pet’s wellbeing.
This can be for a variety of reasons, such as:
- The animal is old and in pain due to deteriorating health.
- The animal has a terminal illness, such as cancer or rabies.
- The animal has suffered an accident which severely lessens their quality of life.
- Behavioral problems that could result in the injury of a person or another animal.
When euthanasia seems to be the best option, it is time to sit down with your local vet or animal caretaker to discuss what options you have. Depending on the animal you own or your vet’s preferences, there may be different ways for your animal to be humanely euthanized:
- Intravenous anesthetic. This is where the animal receives an injection which causes unconsciousness then respiratory and cardiac arrest. This is the most-used method for cats and dogs, and is required by 14 different states for the euthanasia of many shelter animals.
- Gas anesthetics such as isoflurane are typically used for very small animals such as rodents or small reptiles. Though carbon dioxide used to be a widely-used method, it is considered inhumane unless the animal is unconscious beforehand.
- Intracardiac or intraperitoneal injection. If an intravenous injection is not possible, this method may be used on unconscious or deeply sedated animals.
- Bolt guns or shooting. Though it may sound cruel, this method is preferred for larger animals such as horses or cattle, where other methods may be ineffective and even cruel. Done correctly by trained professionals, it causes instant death and no suffering.
Your vet or animal caretaker will be able to better discuss your options and what is best for your pet, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Some vets will even make house calls so that your pet can be euthanized in your own home rather than in an office or clinic.
If Your Pet Dies at Home
One thing that catches some pet owners off guard is when their pet dies at home, and they must handle the remains. On top of the grief of losing a beloved pet, they now find themselves in a situation they may not have experienced before and they don’t know what to do.
Here is what you can do if you find yourself in this situation:
Before you do anything else, it’s important that you wrap your pet’s remains. Plastic is good for preventing any unwanted smell or mess, so it’s a good idea to wrap your pet in plastic, like a trash bag, before wrapping it in a towel or blanket. You may also want to position them in the way you would want them buried, if you are choosing to bury them, in case of rigor mortis.
Your first thought may be to call your vet. And while they may be able to give you some advice or even pick up your pet’s remains for cremation, you also can consider calling your local funeral home if they offer pet cremation services. Some will come to pick up your pet’s remains for you or give you instructions on how to get them to their facility properly.
If for some reason you cannot take immediate action, like if it is a weekend or holiday, it is important that you get your pet somewhere cool. A refrigerator is ideal, but if your pet is too big or if you feel uncomfortable with this idea, place them directly on cool concrete or near plenty of securely sealed bags of ice. This will slow down the decomposition process and allow you more time to make arrangements.
You also can freeze your pet if you so choose, unless you plan to have your pet autopsied for any reason. Freezing your pet would disrupt the autopsy and your vet may not be able to find the cause of death.
Burial vs. Cremation
What you choose to do with your pet after they have passed is entirely up to you, but there are some things that you should keep in mind if you decide to bury your pet:
- It is usually legal to bury an animal on your own property, but it may be illegal to bury them in parks or public lands.
- If your pet has been euthanized, be sure to bury it far down, as the chemicals can be harmful to other animals.
- There are cemeteries dedicated entirely to pets that you can have your animal buried in.
There also are some things to keep in mind with cremation:
- You are not alone — a recent Pet Loss Professionals Survey found that 99% of the 820,000 client families they surveyed chose cremation for their pet.
- Pet cremation can typically be done by both vets and funeral homes. It is important that you weigh your options.
- You can do a lot of the same things with pet ashes as human ashes.
Honor Your Pet
There are many options for you to care for your pet after they’ve passed, and many more still for how you choose to remember them. What’s important is that you honor them in a way that celebrates their life and their impact on yours, and also in a way that helps you grieve and move on with the grieving process.
You can always reach out to your local funeral home after the loss of a pet — many have resources for you as you grieve, and can help you find the best options for remembering your animal loved ones.