Saturday, January 18, 2014

What No One Talks About,,,What do you do after you say goodbye?

I run with my very good friend and two dogs about 3 times a week. It serves a few purposes. It keeps our young pups exercised and tired for the long days that we are at work, helps to keep us fit and less guilt ridden with the wine and chocolate we imbibe in nightly, and it allows us to commiserate. The joy in running with our pups, (who act more like a pack of wolves), is watching them look for any and every opportunity to sniff the ground, pretend to chase after a squirrel or run like the wind while pulling their middle aged moms like a piece of dead weight at the butt end of their leashes. Our dogs are crazy about the four miles together. They don't care how cold, wet, or miserable it is outside. They love the run time, and I know that in most cases we do it out of guilt for them. She is also a veterinarian and as our dogs romp we talk shop. It may be a social play event for them but for us it is a time to swap cases, ask opinions, and laugh about the silly things that cross our path, or are too ridiculous to look at any other way than with a sense of sick twisted veterinary humor.

Yesterday's topic was true to form. It began with a short tale about the passing of the somewhat feral cat that had been left behind on the horse farm that she and her husband had purchased a year ago. She was a small agile swift survivor, but like so many other outside cats she succumbed to some unknown, unidentified predator and was found dead near the only spot she ever called home.

Her life may have been short on human interaction and affection, but her passing was met with sympathy and honor. After her body was found she was brought to the horse barn, wrapped delicately in a towel and double bagged to be laid to rest by a tree over looking the farm.

Here’s where our 4 mile conversation began: The ceremony of death and the care of the body. 

How many of us memorialize our pets like they are members of our family? Do we choose to have them cremated? Or go so far as to have them cremated privately so that our pets ashes will be returned to us to be kept with us for the rest of our days? For some, especially so many of my clients who live in the rural farmland of northern Maryland, they choose a spot by a tree on the farm to lay their pet to rest.

It is an intensely personal choice. 

We all deal with death differently. I cannot say that I understand each person’s unique decision, but the following is what I sometimes find myself discussing as we stand over their just departed dear pet.

“What to do with their pets body now?”

 Your options are;
  1. Cremation. Either private, where your pets ashes will be returned to you. Or, mass cremation. Where your pet is cremated with other pets.
  2. Public disposal. Found dead animals, or animals euthanized at public facilities may be cremated or disposed of in landfills, based on the state and local guidelines.  
  3. Preservation. Either taxidermist or freeze drying.
  4. Burial at a pet cemetery.
  5. Burial at home.

Invariably I have clients who want to have their pet privately cremated but have heard or read of news stories about funeral homes improperly handling remains, and I am asked any of the following;

“How will I know that I will get my pet back?” 
My answer; The company that we use has been in business for many years. Their whole ability to remain in business is by providing this service. It is solely based on the trust that they have in caring for your pets remains. They go to great pains to protect this. You are welcome to bring your pet to them, and wait while they cremate him, and they will give you your pets ashes. You can stay with your pet for almost every step.

“I don’t know what to do. What do you do with your pets?”

This is a tough one for me to answer. I always feel that I need to be completely honest. I don’t keep my pets ashes in boxes after they depart. It is not that I don’t love them, or carry their memories with me forever, but that I will have too many boxes to ever move on. Their lives were a great blessing, and the time we had I will cherish forever. Keeping a box with ashes doesn't change or lessen my grief. I keep a small tuft of fur in a tiny Victorian box on my dresser. I also have a small heart shaped locket with their picture. I also don't want my pet to be placed by themselves in a crematory oven. I know that my pets lives were full of love and that many of the bodies they would be surrounded by were not. It just doesn't seem fair to those other left behind pets to be still loved less in death? 

My pets come home with me to be buried in our cemetery. They are each given a grave site, complete with head stone and flowers, under the tree beside the pig pen. They go into the earth in a cardboard box to be decomposed and resurrected in the earthworms, butterflies, leaves, flowers, and every living creature that perpetuates the rest of us. In every day they are with me, in tiny specks of the place that they always called home.

Here’s my advice to my clients. When the time comes to put your pet down discuss what you want to do with them before you get to the vets office. If you are unsure of what your options are, or how much each of them costs, call your vet and ask. We encourage you to ask and want you to understand each option. We know that the passing of your pet is an incredibly emotional difficult time and no one wants to add any additional stress to this.


In just about every other aspect of veterinary medicine there are equal options for the treatment and resolution of medical problems in your pet versus human medicine. Brain tumors, prosthetic limbs, organ transplants.., the list goes on and on. If you can afford to pay for it, some veterinarian will provide you the care. But, there are some important differences with respect to care of your pets body after they pass. 


Here’s where I sort of get stumped about what people are thinking when it comes to caring for your pet after they have passed.

If a human being is to be viewed and then buried they are usually embalmed. Quite an unsavory ritual when you think about it, albeit a needed process. It's purpose is to remove the parts of the body that will decay and make an open casket a smelly ugly affair. But for our pets there is no such service. You cannot call the local funeral home and ask for your pet to be gutted, drained of blood, and prepared for viewing and a funeral service. Your option is instead, to find a taxidermist or someone who will freeze dry them. Some people have their pet mounted and keep them in their home. I have to admit that I have a hard time admiring a mounted anything. But people do it, cats, dogs, wildlife, that list is endless too.

If you live in an apartment, condo, or lack a private place to bury your pet there are pet cemetery plots available. Many will provide a place to have a service and also a plaque, head stone, and the rest of the attributes of a formal burial service. 

But what I see most commonly at my practice is clients taking their pet home to be laid to rest on their own property. Most of my clients have a little homemade private grave site complete with a small plague stating their pets name. Pets leave our clinic in a cardboard casket shaped box and we take great effort to provide a quiet, peaceful place and private entrance/exit for the family. There are state and local laws that govern this, so it is important to know them before you decide to bring your pet home for burial. For some clients the vessel to bury their pet is also a topic of discussion.


I have had clients who construct all sorts of elaborate impenetrable and about as un-environmentally friendly caskets to entomb their pet for their forever sleep as you can imagine. 

I had one client who struggled so terribly with the thought of the loss of his dog that he spent great numbers of hours erecting an impenetrable tomb for her to be forever kept in. There we were standing over her just deceased body talking about what to do next. He was very upset about losing his dog, wanted her to be with him at his home in a place she loved, but very fearful that she would be disturbed by the abundant wildlife we share our home sites with. He asked me how deep I though he needed to put her. She was a big girl of about a hundred pounds and it was winter so it was a valid question. I reminded him that it is important to dig a hole deep enough, three to five feet deep and away from any public land, flower gardens, water collection sites, or area that has any potential of being disturbed. I also reminded him that it would be a very good idea to make sure that no underground cables, lines, or pipes there. Then we discussed the idea of Rubbermaid preservation. Oh, I swear I do not know how I get myself into these landmine fields at the most inopportune times? His beloved dog was not going to be preserved no matter how many plastic tubs he put her in. The tubs would likely last for pretty close to forever, but her body? Well the bugs that live inside of all of us will take care of her from the inside out, even if he managed to seal her off from the outside. Not to mention those plastic tubs. Who wants to dig them up? Someday we too will pass. We can try to live forever, but forever will turn us back to dust and ash. 

There I stood with this dear man crying over his beautiful dog, consumed by grief and having to contemplate what to do next? 

And there I am talking about what really happens and trying to understand why would anyone choose to double encase their pet in plastic tubs? Or bags? To each their own I suppose?

There are so many inopportune times to not talk about things. No doubt the worst is the time when a person is saying goodbye to their companion. And so often this is when we find ourselves talking about what to do??,,now.

I always say the same thing, “It is a personal choice. You should do what you feel is right for you and your pet.”

Moses, D.C., Midnight, Donner, and Ms. Pig

One of the most wonderful things about the crematory service that my clinic uses is that after the pets have been cremated all of the ashes are spread on their farm, beside a pond. It is a beautiful peaceful place. When I leave this earth I would love to be placed there. Maybe I can keep looking after all of those pets? I am sure that they would be the best company for me to spend my eternity.
But leave my lockets on my pets headstones so I can be with them too.

If you have any pet questions you can ask them for free at, or find me on Twitter @FreePetAdvice


  1. I have kept the ashes of most of my pets with the intention that they be mixed with my ashes after my death and cremation. I have pre-paid for my cremation and have left directions with the funeral home AND family members about my wishes and about where I'd like the ashes spread when the time comes.

    1. Hello,

      I applaud your forethought and planning. Any of us who have ever had to decide what our loved ones wanted but were left no instructions understand how much appreciated it is to be able to know without doubt what our departed friend/family wanted. In the midst of grieving a loved one it is comforting to be certain that you are following their wishes.

      Thank You for reading, and many many long happy years to you!


  2. I will bury mine in the gardens and let nature take its course, although I admit,I threaten to have Falkor made into a bear skin rug(Great Dane,Maremma mix) and Miss Priss stuffed so I can drag her around with me, because she is the most ridiculous dog ever, and the 3rd, Penny,made into a stole for fashion points because she has the coat of a penguin!!

    1. Hello,

      May your garden always be a cheerful reminder of the happy days you had together.

      Thank You for reading, and for taking the time to comment.

      Love the descriptions of your pets!


  3. Lend Me A Kitten

    I will lend to you for a while a kitten, God said.
    For you to love while he lives, and mourn when he’s dead.
    Maybe for twelve or fourteen years, or maybe two or three.
    But will you, ’till I call him back, take care of him for me?
    He’ll bring his charms to gladden you and, should his stay be brief
    you’ll always have his memories as solace for your grief.
    I cannot promise he will stay, since all from earth return.
    But there are lessons taught below I want this kitten to learn.

    I’ve looked the whole world over in search of teachers true.
    And from the folk that crowd’s life’s land I have chosen you.
    Now will you give him all your love, nor think the labor vain?
    Nor hate me when I come to take my kitten home again?

    My heart replied, “My Lord, Thy Will Be Done”
    For all the joys this kitten brings the risk of grief I’ll run.
    We’ll shelter him with tenderness; we’ll love him while we may.
    And for the happiness we’ve known, forever-grateful stay.
    But should you call him back much sooner than we planned.
    We’ll brave the bitter grief that comes, and try to understand.
    If, by our love we’ve managed your wishes to achieve.
    Then in memory of him, who we loved, please help us while we grieve.
    When our cherished kitten departs this world of strife,
    Please send yet another needing soul for us to love all his life.

    - Unknown

    1. What a wonderful verse.

      Thanks for sharing it..


  4. our puppy is on the mantle in the very nice box they sent home with him. his baby collar is in there, too.

    i still talk to him from time to time. he was just a baby...10.5 months old...but he was my heart. call me weird but i like seeing his name on the box.

    1. Hello Laura,

      I am so sorry for your loss. Losing a pet is always hard, but trying to find reason and understanding to help cope with the grief and move on is especially hard when you feel cheated. Ten months is far too young to lose a pet.

      I hope that having him next you to, to talk to, be comforted by, and remind you of how much love you shared gives you some peace. And I hope that someday you can once again have another soul to love and care for. It is so hard to love and to lose, but it always helps me to find another pet in need and remind myself that we both need each other, and we both help each other go on and find the beauty in life again.

      Thank You for reading, and sharing, and I hope I didn't make this blog sound like I do not understand or sympathize with people who choose private cremation.
      I see enough people who don't care enough about their pets to ever criticize those who love their pet sooo much that they want and need to keep a part of them. And I know that for many it is a great comfort to have their pet come back to them after they have crossed the rainbow bridge.

      My deepest sympathies and a warm heartfelt hug to you. You are in my thoughts.


    2. Krista,

      after seeing how we handled his illness (renal displaysia), our breeder trusted us with the pick of her most recent litter. our Ripley is destined for shows and agility trials...she's too pretty and drivey to do anything less. she's helped distract us so we can heal. she's just as cuddly as her half brother was, even if she's a pistol compared to his generally calm demeanor.

      and we've learned something...any puppy we bring home will be getting an abdominal ultrasound to get everything checked out. some people would look at us like we're nuts, but the sooner we get an idea of what's going on, the better.

      i don't think you sounded like you didn't understand or sympathize. i think veterinarians are best able to understand the grief of a lost pet, as they see it entirely too often. i don't know if you hear this enough, but thank you for what you do. your career is a difficult one, and it really takes a special person to do it.

      --L (and Ripley)

  5. Krista,
    Curious what cremation company you use, so many on the east coast do not do truly private cremation with one pet per cremation cycle. I'm happy to hear about others besides the one I'm blessed to work with. Thank you for your post on this topic. As a veterinarian offering end of life care, I help people with this topic on a daily basis.