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Pets: End of Life Care and Pet Cremation

If only our pets could talk. It would be enlightening and amusing to hear what they think and feel! Most pet owners like to imagine what their pets are feeling, and even speak for them in playful conversation, embellishing their innate personalities – a joy of pet ownership, infused with loving humor.

As pets enter their elder years, it becomes trickier to guess how they’re feeling. A gentle slowing down is to be expected. Ideally, we want to lovingly guide our pet’s end of life experience and minimize associated discomfort or distress. It is helpful to give thought to these issues before the pet’s health is compromised. The following lists identify a few behaviors that might indicate your pet’s quality of life is diminishing, or that your pet is experiencing pain.

Quality of life - red flags

  • Irritable, restless or confused
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive drinking of water, or lack of drinking water
  • General malaise
  • Avoidance of favorite activities
  • Seeks unusual places to sleep or hide

Behavioral signs of pain

  • Excessive panting or gasping
  • Reclusiveness
  • Reluctance to move
  • Food pickiness
  • Loss of interest in play
  • Incontinence
  • Unusual aggression or vocalizing

What resources are available for pet end of life care?

If a pet has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, an untreatable disease or advanced aging, it’s helpful to recognize that professional support is available. Care can be given at home with close supervision from your vet, who can explain pain management protocol associated with your pet’s specific condition. Medications range from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to narcotic pain killers. Distress is minimized by surrounding your pet with its favorite things – perhaps a warm blanket, toys, and a cushioned sleeping spot.

It’s essential to request and have open discussions with your vet to understand what is going on physically with your pet, and what to expect. Explore pain relief medications and modalities to thoroughly understand the options. Consider discussing such things as:

  • What are all the ways that a pet’s pain can be successfully managed?
  • Will hand feeding morsels to a pet be beneficial if the pet isn’t eating as normal?
  • If my pet isn’t drinking, can sub-cutaneous fluids be administered to supplement fluid intake, and for how long?
  • If my pet isn’t mobile but is alert and responsive, what can be done to help?
  • What is euthanasia and what should I expect? Can this be done at home?

What is pet hospice?

Also called palliative care, hospice care is an option for pet parents who want to engage in an extended good-bye, or who are opposed to euthanasia. In addition to pain medication, dietary strategy, modalities such as acupuncture, and human interaction can make the pet’s final days more pleasant.

Pet hospice is not a place, but a personal choice and philosophy based on the principle that death is a part of life and can be dignified and loving, for a peaceful end of life experience. If suffering gets out of control, euthanasia is still an option.

What about grief support for pet parents?

It is as natural and necessary to grieve for the loss of a pet as it is to grieve for a human loved one who has died. The grieving process often begins before your pet has passed away, so it is important to take care of yourself and seek help if you need it.

Ask your vet or knowledgeable friends for recommendations of grief support options in your area. Nationally, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has a pet loss support program with a hot line at 877-474-3310. A professional can help by discussing the following issues:

  • Assistance with the decision to euthanize
  • Comfort and support at the time of death
  • Help in grieving the loss
  • Advice on helping children, the elderly or disabled who are facing the death of a companion animal
  • Help surviving animals in the household cope
  • Assistance establishing a relationship with a new pet

Options for pet aftercare

Our blog, "Keeping Pet Ashes at Home and Other Options," provides a few stories of how pet owners have lovingly cared for their pet's remains.

Home burial

Many families find it natural to bury their pet at home in the yard where it played, in a special spot that can be planted with flowers or marked with a stone or statuary. This is allowable in rural and most suburban settings, but may be illegal in denser urban areas.

Cemetery burial

There are over 600 pet cemeteries in the United States. Costs for a pet to be buried range between $175 - $275, usually depending on the pet’s size. A few cemeteries for humans allow pets to be buried in the same plot as their person, but many cemeteries prohibit this.

Cremation

    The Argus Institute in Colorado is one of the oldest support and counseling programs in the country for pet owners. Maria Gore, MSW, a clinical counselor there, said that cremation is the most common choice among the Institute’s clients when their pets pass away, rather than burial. Cremation is practical and manageable. The variety of pet cremation urns allows for many ways to honor a pet and keep memories close.

    Pet cremation – what to expect

    If you have chosen to euthanize your pet at a veterinarian’s office, they will deliver the pet’s body to the crematorium. There are three types of pet cremation processes:

    • private
    • comingled
    • partitioned

    Prices generally range from $50-$150. In a private cremation, only one body is in the cremation chamber. For a partitioned cremation, multiple animals share one chamber, but they are partitioned, one from another, so that the remains of each can be collected separately. Comingled is the communal cremation of several animals at once without any means of separating the remains following cremation.

    Ira Woods, president of OneWorld Memorials, was recently quoted in an article on the website Nano Express News. He advises spending a little extra to ensure that you are receiving solely the ashes of your pet, and not an amalgam of other animals. Ira states:

    With little regulation regarding pet cremation, pet owners are right to be concerned. Before your pet is taken, thoroughly research the process and the facility you or your veterinarian is planning to use. If you want zero commingling of ashes, make sure your pet receives a completely private and individual cremation rather than a communal or partitioned cremation where other animals are included. Get it in writing and understand how the crematory defines these different kinds of services. Make sure proper tagging happens as is the norm with human cremation. These few things will certainly cost you more, but in the end you’ll have greater peace of mind. 

    After cremation, the remains are processed further into a fine powder, then sealed in a plastic bag. Though the crematory will provide a basic box to hold the ashes, many families opt to put the ashes in a carefully chosen pet urn that more personally reflects their special relationship with the pet.

    What can I do with pet ashes?

    Take some quiet time to peruse the many choices of containers for pet ashes. Thoughtfully consider what feels most meaningful to you, and whether you prefer to keep the ashes in your home or to bury or scatter them. There are boxes for pet ashes that can be personalized. Pet photo urns for ashes offer a visual reminder of happy times shared. Urns are available in various sizes in bronze, brass, stone, wood and ceramic, as well as biodegradable materials for eco burials. Perhaps a pet cremation pendant, in the shape of a cat or a bone, that holds a nominal amount of ashes, is a way to feel the closeness of your pet. For families who wish to scatter their pet’s ashes in a favorite location, scattering urns are a pleasing option.

    With forethought and care, you and your pet can experience a loving end of life journey.

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