What to Do When Your Pet Dies

Even if your pet has been enduring a long illness, nobody is truly prepared for death. Here’s our best advice for what to do when your pet dies.

Have you thought about what you want to do when your pet dies?

It was the height of a storm the other night. Wind gusts were frightening, our towering trees very close to the house, and my veterinary hospital reeking and bending.

My beeper went off. “Are you kidding me?” said one of my kids. No, nobody was kidding.

It was clients I have known for a long time. Their aged Greyhound was in incredible pain, screaming. He had fallen and injured a leg that was already severely compromised by a bone tumor. They asked me to make a house call to put him to sleep. My husband and I made it the several miles to end Majesty’s pain.

His humans wanted to help carry his body back to my car in the midst of the howling wind and rain slapping our faces. They thanked us with hugs and tears.

We all stood for a few minutes as a bizarre halt in the storm prevailed over the strange sight of the 4 of us looking at Majesty, finally out of pain, in the back of my station wagon. I told them I would give them a call when his ashes came back. I knew their wishes. They didn’t have to say anything.

What to Do When Your Pet Dies

Have you thought about what you want to do when your pet dies?

Even if your pet has been enduring a long illness, and death is inevitable, nobody is truly prepared. More often than you would think, people haven’t given any thought to what they want to do with their pet’s body.

In as gentle a way as possible, I let them know they don’t have to decide immediately, if they haven’t given it any thought, or if it’s an untimely death. This often brings them a little relief in the midst of deep despair. Most veterinarians can store a body for a period of time.

I tell my clients to go home, talk to the family and call me when they are ready. They have to mull over the following 3 choices.

1. Burial

For many people, burying their pet on their property is the natural choice. Here are a few things to think about:

Is it legal?

Legal in New York City, illegal in Los Angeles and lots of different laws in the middle. I serve so many towns that I don’t even know what all the health departments’ rules and restrictions are.

I suggest to my clients that they check with their town — wink, wink — but I let them know that law enforcement does not have hidden cameras in their back yards. In other words, I doubt anyone is watching you and what you’re doing with that shovel, unless you have a neighbor who has it out for you.

That being said, it’s important to use a lot of common sense when digging a grave.

Dig deep enough to prevent predators.

Four feet seems acceptable. If a neighbor’s dog can dig up your shallow grave, finding the remains can make that dog very sick, not to mention how upsetting such an event would be for all concerned.

Digging a grave for a large dog is very difficult.

A back hoe or manual labor help may be essential.

Beware of what’s underground.

Such as buried lines and your neighbor’s water supply.

Place a marker, a paver, a shrub.

You memory may not serve you well if you had your ceremony in October and there’s still a foot of snow in that area in March. You can always find the perfect stone or memorial later, but make sure you mark the grave. Along with a marker, I plant daffodils if it’s fall, and perennials if it’s spring or summer.

What about long winters?

Here in Massachusetts, we get an early and long winter. If my patient passes away in the heart of winter, I can usually offer to keep the pet in my hospital freezer until the spring thaw. This may sound a bit creepy, but most clients can’t thank me enough. When the snows are long gone, on a beautiful sunlit day with tulips blooming, they can arrange to pick up the body and have their burial service at home.

What if you move away and leave the grave behind?

There are two ways to think about this, in my mind. If your present address is where Sprinkles lived out a long and happy life, then maybe this is where she belongs. But if you might move away in a year, are you okay with leaving the grave behind? This is why some people feel better about cremation.

Pet cemetery burial marker

2. Professional Burial Services

Your veterinarian can help you with the services in your area.

It’s very important to get a good reference because some people in the pet business are, put simply, disreputable. A legitimate pet cemetery exists on dedicated land, meaning that land cannot be used for any other purpose but a pet cemetery.

I have been working with one, and only one, pet cemetery and crematory since 1988. I recommend you find a pet cemetery/crematory with a long and reputable track record.

Private burial.

Most pet cemeteries offer private burials. This can be fairly expensive, but you have a grave to visit if this is important.

Communal burial.

If a cemetery has the proper licensing, this means your pet is buried on their dedicated land without an individual marker. A memory wall is usually available for you to add a memorial to your pet. This option is much less expensive.

To put gruesome fears to rest, if you are dealing with someone reputable, they do what they say they do. You don’t have to worry that your pet will end up in a landfill. I get asked this question frequently.

3. Cremation

Many of my clients opt for cremation because it  just feels right to them. Some folks have no emotional need to have ashes returned. They tell me their memories are what they want to hold on to, not ashes. Other people will sacrifice in order to pay for a private cremation, and have their pets’ individual ashes returned.

Group vs. individual cremation.

Group cremation means your pet is cremated with other animals, and ashes are not returned. For a larger fee, usually dependent on the size of your pet, there is individual cremation and ashes are returned.

Put your fears to rest.

This is how it works when you’re dealing with an ethical crematory: Every week, my hospital gets a visit from Angel View, the same familiar truck, the same drivers. My technician oversees that each individual body, properly labeled, gets logged in with the Angel View driver. Spellings of names are checked, and the bodies are sent off with dignity.

In about a week, ashes are returned in a beautiful fine wood box, with a certification letter stating the name of the owner and the pet. If you’d like to be present during an individual cremation, you may do so.

What About Taxidermy and Freeze-Dried Animals?

I’ll be brief: I think this is strange.

But for those of you who want to look at your pet as some manifestation of living room art, these services are available.

Some taxidermists decline these jobs, but others do specialize in the service and charge $800–1,800 depending on the size and work involved.

There are many ways to remember your pet when it has died. By: Stirling StoneWorks International

Ways to Remember a Deceased Pet — And How to Let Go

Losing a pet can be a devastating time in your life, and it can be difficult to talk about your pet’s death with family, friends and children.

Now that you have made the final arrangements, from Petful editor Kristine Lacoste comes this list of 10 ways to memorialize your pet:

1. Urns

Urns are a popular choice to store your pet’s remains if they are cremated. Urns come in varying sizes depending on the animal, and they are available in many different materials. Some are eco-friendly for ashes distribution while others are made of wood, marble, metal or ceramic, and there are many designs to choose from.

2. Headstones

Headstones, grave markers and pet garden memorial stones (affiliate link) offer unique and custom designs.

Most of these come in granite, marble or stone, but there are additional options as well as choices of 3-D shapes, ground stakes and plantable bones.

3. Engraved Plaques

Plaques can be created to be placed on items that are not able to be engraved.

Some of these are placed on stands while others are adhered to urns, boxes and other types of memorial containers. Most companies offer engraving, and some can even have your pet’s picture on the engraving (done from a photograph).

4. Window Decals

You can apply window decals to windows or other smooth surfaces and customize them.

While some people may list the pet’s name or dates on the decals, others may choose to go with “I miss my pug” or “Honk if you love huskies,” so the creative options are there for you to choose something you are comfortable with displaying. Decals are usually UV resistant and made of heavy-duty material.

Dedicate a shelf to display your memorial items and photographs. By: In The Light Urns

5. Photo Album or Book

Viewing photos of your deceased pet can be an aid to the grieving process, and there are many options online to upload your photos into a print book or album. Some services offer custom covers, lettering and a variety of material options.

Gather your family around and go through your pet’s pictures. Let each person select a favorite and add captions or stickers. Maybe let it be a timeline — for example, from puppyhood to big in the blink of a dog walk.

6. Paintings and Portraits

A custom work of art can be a beautiful way to display your pet. There are services and artists that can create a beautiful painting or graphite sketch of your pet for display. Custom or handmade work is usually more expensive, but it will be unique.

Paw Print Infinity 14K gold pendant from Perfect Memorials

7. Jewelry

Many types of jewelry are able to be customized with your pet’s information or photograph, and some are designed to hold a small amount of your pet’s ashes to keep them with you always.

Jewelry types range from pendants and charms to actual paw print and nose print engravings on gold and silver.

Perfect Memorials offers a variety of high-quality, thoughtful memorials for a deceased pet. Each piece is customizable or engravable for a one-of-a-kind memorial.

We love their Paw Print Infinity pendant (affiliate link), which you can personalize by tucking in a small portion of cremated remains or a lock of hair. You can engrave your pet’s name on the jewelry.

8. Memorial Services

Another way to honor and remember your pet or celebrate its life is by holding a memorial service.

This can be as simple as having the family plant a tree in the backyard to a full service inviting friends and family to a church, park or garden.

A beautiful, shady spot outside is the perfect place, according to Petful writer Karen Doll. She buried her dog Pip, wrapped in his Scooby-Doo blankets, underneath the maple tree in her backyard. She decided to hang a red, bone-shaped wooden sign, emblazoned with “PIP,” from a low branch.

Karen has additional suggestions if you’re considering a memorial service for your deceased pet. She suggests adding some personal touches, such as:

  • Shade-friendly plants
  • Tail-wagging decorations
  • A comfortable bench — it’s OK to sit there and cry, smile or laugh at your pet’s antics, or even just sit and reflect

Pretty urns can be a lovely focal point for an indoor memorial. Consider a central location or perhaps a more private spot, such as your bedroom or home office.

Start by choosing a favorite photo to accompany the urn and highlight it in a unique frame. Or begin with an ordinary frame and personalize it by painting it or adorning it with sweet little pet-themed or heart shapes from a craft store. Place your pet’s favorite toy beside the urn to remember the good times you shared.

If your pet wore a special collar, wrap it around the top of the urn for a personal little paw print. Or think about adding ribbons instead and tie a crafty name tag into the ribbons.

9. Videos

If you have photographs or videos of your pet, you can create a video with those images and add text, music or whatever you desire. Some professionals offer this service for around $100.

10. Nonconventional Ideas

There are many nonconventional ways people remember their pets.

Some of these include having your pet’s ashes made into a record, putting ashes into a pillow you can hug, getting a tattoo, creating necklaces from their fur and many more.

Karen Doll shares another excellent suggestion here: Turn the loss of your pet into a donation to a needy cause. “Animal rescues are always in need of supplies, helping hands and monetary donations,” she says. “When Pip died, I gathered up his bed, his toys, leftover food, winter wear and rain gear and took it all to the local shelter.”

“The tears shed on the journey to and from felt like Pip was giving me the OK,” Karen says.

Coping With the Sudden Death of Your Pet

Clarissa Fallis, a dog trainer who says she was shattered when her service dog, Lynal, was run over by a truck and was killed, has some advice for coping with a sudden and unexpected loss. “Lynal was only 3 and had a long life ahead of him,” she says.

Here, in her own words, are some of the things that helped her for the first few weeks:

Friends and Family

I called people I knew would be there for me. On the day of the accident, two of my best friends, my sister and my boyfriend all came and stayed with me.

No one really knew what to do in such a tragic situation, but just having the continuous support and love that my friends and family gave me helped me feel like I wouldn’t be alone in the grieving process.

Saying Goodbye

My mother took my dog to the veterinarian to be sent out for cremation. Before he was taken away, I asked the vet if she could clean him up so I could say goodbye. Since my last image of him was of him lying on the road, I knew I needed a better last image.

When my vet called me into the examination room, Lynal was lying flat with a towel draped over his midsection and his head was exposed. I was able to caress his face and kiss him goodbye. This image was much nicer than what I had remembered.

Keep Eating

Even though eating seemed like the most impossible thing for me to do at the time, I was able to keep down small pieces of muffin and hot tea.

I was also lucky enough to receive an Edible Arrangement, which made eating much easier.

If you are having trouble eating while you are grieving, try to find something you can tolerate and don’t push yourself to eat more than you can handle. After a week, I started craving strawberry cheesecake again, so I knew I was making progress.

That's me with Lynal two days after I adopted him. About three weeks ago, he died suddenly.
Clarissa Fallis and her dog Lynal, 2 days after she adopted him. By: Clarissa Fallis/Petful

How to Help Others Cope With a Pet’s Death

Children

Children can form incredibly close bonds with animals, and their method of coping can vary as much as an adult’s.

Explain what happened to their pet in a way your children can understand for their age and religious beliefs. They may be scared, blame themselves, or experience anger or guilt:

  • Let them know it is OK to express their feelings and that they are not at fault.
  • For children with religious beliefs who may be comforted knowing their pet is in heaven, there is a service that will mail a “letter from pet heaven” to them from their pet based on information you provide.
  • Telling your children the animal ran away might not be the best idea. They will have to deal with the loss of a pet and constantly wait for the animal to return. I believe being honest with them is best, but parents with children who have had troubling or severe problems dealing with any form of death in the past might consider this as an option.

Older Adults

If the person who lost a pet is a parent or senior, he or she may need extra attention from friends and family to help with the grieving process. Losing a pet can also trigger depression in older adults and bring about thoughts of their own mortality.

This can be especially true for someone who lives alone and lost his or her only pet. Try to check in on this person often, offer support and encourage him or her to reach out to a support group.

Offer ideas such as our list above in case they may help the person deal with the loss.

Sharing the News Online

Social media is an excellent outreach network. Post share-worthy snippets:

  • Set up a special Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest page to honor your deceased pet. Share funny stories and memorable moments — relive that wonderful tale of how you first met your pet.
  • Post a handy checklist of common symptoms or easily missed symptoms.
  • Share a big shout-out for animal rescue. Add rescue and shelter links related to your pet’s breed or multi-breed rescues.
  • Post links to local and national fundraising events.

“The most important thing to remember when honoring your beloved pet’s memory is to keep it simple and do what comes naturally,” says Karen Doll. “It doesn’t need to be spectacular. It’s simply about love.”

The following video montage of a dog named Cooper may offer some ideas for your a video or memorial:

“Should I Get Another Pet After My Pet Died?”

Getting another pet right away can be a difficult decision.

Focusing on another pet may seem like a fast way to get over your pet’s death, but it can also prevent you from properly grieving. This may make your grief worse when it surfaces and may make it difficult for you to be around the new pet.

“Because Lynal was my service dog, I knew I needed another dog,” says Clarissa Fallis. “I ended up adopting a young female Chihuahua/Miniature Pinscher mix who I named Addisen. She fit the personality needed to be a good psychiatric service dog, and her goofy big ears made me smile.”

Clarissa advises that if you do decide to get another dog right away, don’t get the same breed, gender or size of the dog you just lost.

“I still grieve Lynal’s loss and don’t see Addisen as a replacement dog — only a new dog,” she says. “No animal could replace Lynal in my life — and once I was able to accept that fact, I was able to start creating a new type of bond with Addisen.”

What About Other Pets Who Are Still Living?

Don’t forget your remaining pets. Other animals may have been very close to the deceased pet or will sense a change in their environment and inhabitants. Animals can get depressed and experience sadness, lethargy and whimpering, and may refuse to eat or drink. They will need lots of love and attention to deal with this period. See my article on holding a wake for your deceased pet at home.

If you have recently lost a pet, allow yourself time to grieve and don’t feel shy about telling people when you’re ready to talk — and when you’re not.

If you know someone who has recently lost a pet, offer this person a chance to talk about it — or arrange a lunch meeting, bring dinner or visit with them when you can.

Additional Resources

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. Kristine Lacoste, Karen Doll and Clarissa Fallis all contributed to this article.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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