What to Do When Your Pet Dies

After Hurricane Sandy, I felt even sadder than usual when I had to turn to my clients who had recently lost pets and speak about burial or cremation.

What to do when your pet diesMy extended family all live along the East Coast. The sadness and devastation following Hurricane Sandy have made me very reflective indeed.

I got my home and hospital ready for the unknown wrath of the storm, but my part of Massachusetts was spared. Family on Long Island were not so lucky — but only property was lost, not lives. My sons and daughters-in-law  ventured northward from Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., to hunker down at home.

They chose wisely. Six adults in a safe home, all working away on their laptops, for what seemed to be an uncanny vacation, while others suffered.

I carefully watched the plight of pets in the path of the hurricane, and was pleased that much has been learned since Katrina. Evacuees were told to bring their pets with them this time — shelter from the storm for all creatures, great and small.

But in the aftermath, I couldn’t stop looking at images of what once was Breezy Point, the Jersey Shore, memories from my youth. Prom night always ended with a ride on the Staten Island ferry, and then a trip to Rockaway Beach. (I went to SIX proms, oy vey.) For some folks in these hardest-hit areas, they have their lives and their memories, and not much else.

It’s no wonder then, that a sense of loss has permeated my brain all week. I help people with sadness and the loss of their pets every day, but this week, those losses seemed more poignant. I wanted all of us to grab on to everything we hold dear, and shelter our worlds from all storms.

So when I had to turn to my clients who lost pets this week, and speak about burial or cremation, I felt even more bereft than usual.

A House Call During the Middle of the Storm

It was the height of the superstorm in Amherst last Monday night. Wind gusts were frightening, our towering trees very close to the house, and hospital reeking and bending.

We still had power and were doing various power-driven activities like television and computers when 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 very 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.

The driving wasn’t too bad and the distance was short, but the empty streets were post-apocalyptically eerie. The only storefront showing life was a local pizzeria with some young employees laughing in the lonely shop window. I wondered if their parents knew they were delivering pizzas in a hurricane. My husband and I made it the several miles to end Majesty’s pain.

The owners wanted to help carry his lifeless 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 four 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.

Finally, I’ve come to the heart of this post. 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 these choices:

  1. Burial at home or at a pet cemetery
  2. Cremation, private or group
  3. Home 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 like 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.

Professional Burial Services

Pet cemetery burial marker

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.


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 an owner is so inclined to be present during an individual cremation, he or she may do so.

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.

Don’t Miss: 11 Ways to Remember a Deceased Pet, and How You Can Let Go

My Pets

I chose to have my large dogs cremated. My kitties and guinea pig are buried about the property, marked by daffodils. Burying my big dogs would not have been easy. Bitsy, the hypothyroid coonhound, weighed in at 101 at the time of her death.

But more importantly, these dogs loved my Mom’s little lake house in upstate New York. If I was ever to scatter or bury ashes, I felt they belonged there.


Remember Elvis, the debarked South Philly hound dog? I brought his cremains to his favorite point on the lake to scatter them on a beautiful summer day. It was windier than I thought, and there was a bit of a Big Lebowski moment when my family was more or less wearing some of Elvis.

It was fitting. He had always been a weird dude: a hound dog that couldn’t bark, a blue tick that couldn’t hunt, man’s best friend who only had eyes for me. I laughed and I cried as some of Elvis floated away on the Great Sacandaga Lake. I pretended I was walking in the shallow waters with my dog at my side one last time.

Deciding what to do with your deceased companion’s remains is a symbolic, solemn, emotional event. Talk with your closest friends and loved ones.

Bruno, my family’s most iconic, favorite dog, is still with us, ashes in a fruitwood urn. Some day, when it feels right, I think we’ll spread his ashes at the lake, his favorite place in the world. It was nine years ago last month that Bruno died. We were at the lake for Columbus Day, and Bruno told me his days of running into the water after sticks were over. He told me it was okay, and hoped I understood. Bruno was ready to chase sticks again with other doggy saints, not in his earthly lake, but in the beautiful blue firmament above.

Paw Print Infinity 14K gold pendant from Perfect Memorials

Honor Your Pet’s Memory

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.

Top photo by alubavin/Flickr; tombstone photo by Michael_Lehet/Flickr

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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