When a pet dies, what do you do with it?

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This is Nelly. She is my studio cat, my house cat, my friend, and the best cat. She just turned eight, and so we hope she has many good years left in her, but Nelly’s time will come. I’ve had many pets die — fish, birds, mice, dogs, kittens, cats, and even a horse — but animal burial was my dad’s job. When Nelly finally goes to the great sunny windowsill in the sky, it will be our job to decide what to do with our most-beloved Little Miss. Our cheesebelly. Our Nelly-belly. For the first time ever, I will be a grown up with a dead family pet.

In preparation of the sad time that a pet dies, let’s talk about how to take care of your friend’s final arrangements. But first, everyone has to do me a favor:

My mother-in-law is more superstitious than I, and she has a habit of touching her nose with her index finger once or twice when she talks about a negative hypothetical. As in, “If something happens to you on this trip, [nose tap], we should know where your important documents are.” It’s her way of say, “God forbid!” It would make me feel much better if we all do a nose tap while reading this post. Okay. Let’s go.

Burial

Simple, traditional, culturally meaningful — burial is a great choice if you have a home and a bit of land. Things to consider when burying a pet:

  • Before you do anything, call your local utilities office to come mark your yard. The last thing you want to do is break a gas line with your shovel.
  • Wrap your pet in a cotton cloth. If she had a favorite blanket, maybe it would do the job.
  • If your pet is small, place her inside a cardboard box. If you have the heart and the desire, you might decorate it. Consider whether you’d like to add a favorite toy.
  • Dig deep. Make the grave at least three feet deep to prevent smells or scavenger intrusions.
  • Prepare a few words. If you haven’t already said goodbye to your pet, let him know how much he means to you and how much you will miss him. Wrap up by remembering something you loved about your pet.
  • Mark the grave: You might place paving stones, plant a tree, buy a marker, or devise another sort of memorial for your pet.

Problems you might encounter in burying your pet:

  • It’s winter. The common advice is to put your pet in the freezer if he dies when the ground is frozen. …I don’t know if I could deal with that, and your pet may simply be too large. In this case you might consider one of the alternatives.
  • You live in an apartment. I once had a conversation about what I’d do with a dead pet if I still lived in an apartment. We actually talked about sneaking into a park and burying said hypothetical pet, but I don’t know that I’d actually recommend that.

Cremation

Veterinarians can give you a reference for a pet cremation service. Things to think about when it comes to cremation:

  • If it’s important to you, ask about individual cremation. It will cost more, but you will know you’re getting back your pet, not a mixture of animals.
  • Consider what you will do with the ashes. If you’re not the type to hang on to ashes, you might sprinkle them in a favorite park, outside a window your cat enjoyed, or over a new planting in your pet’s honor.
  • If you want to keep the ashes, there are many urns available — even in the form of wearable lockets.

Mummification

The Observatory is a store in Brooklyn which offers mummification classes using actual animals. They say nothing about pets, but I have to wonder if you might be able to take the class and preserve your dearly departed. On one hand, I’d have to cut open someone I loved, but on the other… that would be a pretty amazing way to remember a pet.

Pet Cemetery

Growing up, my neighbors up the road ran a pet cemetery. Fun fact: amputated human body parts are often buried in them, as well!

Pet cemeteries are pretty easy to find with the old Google. They are especially good choices for very large companions, though Loving Rest, one of the cemeteries in my city, offers burial for fish and small pets.

Taxidermy

I have heard many stories of pets being taxidermied, but I just can’t deal with that. That’s some Norman Bates-level shit.

Funeral Pyre

This option is unorthodox — even more so than mummification. Most likely, creating a funeral pyre for your pet would not be feasible — legally or practically — but there are places in the US which allow funeral pyres. If you live in a rural area, can’t spring for cremation, and feel competent in creating a funeral pyre, this might be worth researching.

When your pet is MIA

Sometimes pets wander off, never to be seen again. We always hope they’ve been taken in by new families, but their absence definitely leaves a hole. Here are a couple of options for if Fluffy runs away — or how to further memorialize a pet who’s now buried in the garden:

  • Gather a few favorite toys, frame a nice photo, and place them together on a shelf as a quiet tribute.
  • Add his tags to your keychain, or loop them on a chain and hang them in a visible place.
  • Make a donation in your pet’s honor. You might decide to help the ASPCA, your local animal rescue, a school of veterinary medicine, or a charity which collects supplies for pets of displaced or disaster-struck families.

Now that you’ve read the saddest post ever, go hug your fluffikins. And here. Watch Maru:

Comments on When a pet dies, what do you do with it?

  1. I’ve done burials for most of the pets I’ve had and they were a nice way to get some closure on that pet-chapter of my life. I think this is a great post on the different options available. Although I have to say, as I was reading this, there was this very somber tone my head was reading it in until I hit the taxidermy part. It felt like a friend leaned over during a serious part and whispered a joke to me. 🙂

    • We buried our beloved cat Scaredy in our backyard , who passed away from cancer. His daddy held him in his arms on an unusually warm march day so he could hear the birds and feel the sun on his beautiful black fur. Seashells mark his grave and I have a bird feeder dedicated to his memory. We have the ashes of two other pets inside in an urn. He was the wild child- forever now in our hearts yet roaming free to catch his birdies!

      • My beloved cat died on June 2, ironically June 3 was my birthday. The cat was happy in the morning, running on the deck, refused to come. I and my boyfriend left for work, leaving them at home as usual. We have adopted them, James and Calving on March 24 this year. They were healthy 6 and 3 year old best friends. Their owner was diagnosed with brain cancer stage 4, and didn’t want them to be separated. James, our kindest cat with a big heart, was such a joy. Calvin used to attack him playfully, and both of us would protect James. He was such a joy.

        On June 1, after we came home, we noticed James was missing. He was hiding under the bed. When we removed the bed, we noticed his lower legs were not functioning at all. We took him to the emergency right away. The cost came up as $3200 and we agreed anyway. At that point, I would give anything just to save him. Unfortunately, the next morning we received a phone call saying he was in pain, not making it. His livers got damaged as a result of medications, and doctors suggested to put him down.

        We let him go 2 days ago. Still grieving, his friend Calvin is grieving tool. In order to cover the costs, I opened gofundme donations, because I used to donate here whenever someone really needed. I hoped I could get at least some of the expenses covered. However, when it came to my turn, there is not even $1 donated. I am heart broken. Next time I will think twice before donating someone too. Here is the link gofundme.com/27s8cnmx but I am giving up on that.

        I would never ask for donations, I just graduated from college recently. I still need time to get over and move on, get a job and pay off everything. It is just when you need help, there is no one.

        • I’m not sure if you could still read this by now. I’m a Filipina and my cat just passed away today too and I am very depressed. Adopted him outside our school Feb 2014. I don’t have much, I’m just about to graduate from college (hopefully next May) but I swear if I was in your country I would’ve given even $10 or more as long as I have something to give. I hope you’re better now. Wishing you the best.

        • Jill,
          Did you ever get anything from go fundme? I can’t believe you didn’t get any money! Did you link to all your Social media sites? I am so sorry for your loss and I rescued a dog and when we got her and she was very ill. We didn’t know until a few days later and she had 3,000 worth of vet bills, it took us a long time to pay it back. It was worth it but we are still trying to pay the last 1800.00 I hope you see this, if you start a new fund let me know, I can give you 20.00
          Cindy

    • Faced with a similar decision; more so, required the role many have mentioned, as the whatever child in the family to take the burden. This was in both administering the beloved cat’s i.v.’s as her kidney required as well as the decision to take her to the vet and give the final decision to allow her to go on. (which had, at last attempt a chance at extension; but blood work and a little Doctor Doolittle with the friend I had rescued years ago, been pretty much made for a time of final good bye with a message whispered in her ear and a short message written to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama along with a picture and request for his next laugh to perhaps include the joy of a life that brought happiness (though, some billion or million followers; I have had the kismet of being heard by His Holiness and being mentioned in a response before) and was fortunate that this life left pain free by caring veterinarians). I respond to this post and am glad to not have given too many text messages of the macabre regarding taxidermy. Oddly, enough it was Bates that made me questions such choice as more in how one would go about finding a taxidermist. Though, knowing of lounges and hunters and mounted everything; I wanted to know, beside that side of it, if having beauty given to a small feline of such a gorgeous coat would have been a right decision. Between that and an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel Air as a child, being in the commodities and superstition arena myself, it didn’t seem so odd so long as it wasn’t on display in my office for daily wheat, gold or stock picks: again this being the pet given to the loved one whom I rescued and truly was in need of the love of this pet the most, for her to have the cat in a warm discrete favorite area and beautifully brought back to well over her final 5 lbs weight with her beautiful coat in full lust as we all remember her, this seemed reasonable – 2 things one: yes to a commodities guy having a heart and two of being of no ink – a post on that sounded beyond bates even to me in comparison even to me – though I do get it. So, I went with burial, as the first snow of the year and freezing the day of had to hit, It was great finding this site and reading these post. I do wonder though: with so many gazettes and bears and elk and deer mounted – presumably taxidermy – is that just extension of Theodore Roosevelt legacy more of macho – or any of remembrance. Now, culturally, having went to university known for its parties and serious courses on Native America Religion and Ritual and later deep study of The Red Book of Jung and his encounters – I was curious on others thoughts or at least to leave this tag of depth out there for the many in an issue that is a heart one to consider – prior, during, hopefully with closure after, and again once more. Appreciate your article though as it did provide perspective – of a culture parallel to me that I have less time to explore. Hopefully this met the off beat and non-drama policy – as you can hopefully read that me to be profiled quite oddly: a terms of living I have no second thought being that of eccentricity….yet with no ink. As for which had the index finger left or right was to nose tap would be helpful wasn’t sure but respectfully honored in a superstitious gesture known of different culture but of the same meaning. I feel the hearts of those whom visit this page and wish them all the emotional iron, if in such a time they need it.

  2. A fellow dog-owner at my basic obedience class mentioned that she was planning to have her dog cremated and mix the ashes in with some tattoo ink, you know, to use in a memorial tattoo.

    My first reaction was “How sweet!”, but my second was “WTF that can’t be real!!”

    • Totally is. Art nerd coming out here: the black in most tattoo pigments is a bone black/carbon black: it comes from burning bones. Lots of vegans avoid it for that reason.

      I make my own paint, but I don’t think I’d make my own tattoo ink…

      • My son did this with his fathers ashes and did the paratrooper tat as that is what his father was.

  3. Thank goodness for Maru. He heals all wounds. Even ones that are from seeing that Norman Bates cat!

  4. When my childhood cat passed away, I lived in an apartment, so I didn’t ask for his cremation remains back. I did ask for his collar and tag, which I still have and keep, as well as all of the wonderful memories, of course.

    There are such a thing as pet funerals and memorials, too, which are a wonderful way to fully mourn your pet’s passing, especially if you don’t have the opportunity for burial, or simply as a way to honor the passing of your companion.

  5. When we had to put our dog to sleep very suddenly 🙁 we opted for the cremation offered by the emergency vet. I wasn’t into keeping the ashes and was in too much shock to consider bringing her home to bury, but a few days afterwards, the e-vet called letting us know that they had made a clay paw print of our pup, which I thought was a really nice way to commemorate her without actually keeping her remains.

    • When our cat had to be put down due to old age/medical reasons the vet unexpectedly sent us a bereavement card along with an ink stamp of her paw print. It was very sweet. Of course by the time it arrived I had already processed and started to move on (it wasn’t unexpected that it was coming, just unexpected that it would be THEN) so there was even more crying then, but the gesture really was sweet.

      • when my first cat passed away, the vet arranged the cremation and i assume did away with the ashes (since i was only a teenager and at some practice SATs when he passed, i didn’t have any say in the arrangements). about two weeks later, i got a card with his paw print and a patch of fur. i didn’t stop crying all day.

        i still have the card, but i keep it hidden. every time i stumble across it, i end up balling like a baby 🙁

    • When my cat had to be put down, they also made an impression of his paw in clay and stamped his name in, as well. I keep it on the windowsill with a little stuffed animal that looks just like him.

  6. I once brought it up to my husband, that we should make plans for our dog when he dies because we won’t be emotionally capable of doing it when the time comes. He brushed me off, claiming that it didn’t matter because Bruster will live forever. Oh, okay.

    There is a field next to the apartment complex we lived in when we first got Bruster and if I had my choice, I’d bury him there. He loved that field and would spend hours sniffing out voles in it. I think we’ll either cremate him and spread his ashes there or bury him in the back yard. Y’know, if he wasn’t going to live forever.

    Also: amputated limbs in pet cemeteries? Do you mean people choose to bury the limbs they’ve had amputated as opposed to disposing of them?

    • People of some religions believe that you should be interred with all your “pieces” for resurrection purposes. I know an amputee that has his leg frozen so that he can be buried with it when he passes. So maybe internment in a pet cemetery is a good way of safe keeping the lost limb? Better than having it in your freezer I would guess….

      • I recently found out my Nanna genuinely believes this. We’ve been strongly instructed with what she wants when she dies, so she’ll ‘come up in one piece’ when she’s resurrected. My whole family is Catholic and this is the first time I’ve heard anyone mention it, let alone vehemently believe it!

  7. We had to deal with this sort-of suddenly this year; our girl (Lily) had been declining for some time, but took a dramatic turn for the worse and the decision had to be made literally overnight. We had her cremated as well as getting a clay paw print made and, come the end of the summer, I’m going to scatter some of her ashes in the various places that she loved the best (including the yard of my in-laws). We’ll keep some of her ashes for ourselves, to be put on a shelf with her paw print. It helps to be able to remember what a full life she lived and how much she was loved.

    I do have to say, though, that the care and concern that was shown by our vet & the vet techs during such a tough time was beyond AMAZING. They went out of their way for us and made sure that we were supported & that Lily was as comfortable as possible. They even made a donation in her name (to a foundation that helps cover the costs of surgery/treatment for animal companions of people in financial difficulties) and even sent us a condolence card. We were extremely touched by their kindness and consideration.

  8. My mom’s flower bed is the final resting place for all pets. We pour and decorate a concrete stepping stone to mark each burial spot. It’s just wonderful to always have a place to come back to, to remember our beloved pets… that’s 1 rabbit, 1 cat, 4 dogs. Nearby is another cat (under the asparagus bush) and another dog and a couple geese.

    Time for the morbid: Can I recommend to people burying their pets to be careful when packing down the soil? If you press down too much, some air will–uh–be expelled from your pet’s lungs. Resulting in a noise that is wholly unsettling and has led many pet owners to dig their beloved back up, mistakenly thinking a miracle has occurred.

      • Also, I cannot emphasize enough the depth needed to bury Fluffy. It helps too if you put an old teatowel covered in disinfectant over the, ah, interment.

        I had a rabbit that died in childbirth (sadface) who we then buried with much aplomb… Only to see her her dismembered head right outside the back door the next morning. A fox had dug her up. It was pretty traumatic for my nine-year-old-self.

  9. When we had to put our dog to sleep suddenly (“at 2am” type suddenly) we opted for the private cremation- I was too out of it to realize that it cost about $120, but I’m glad we did it. We spread his ashes in the park near our apartment and hung a few of his tags (I kept the most recent ones, these were old rabies tags and whatnot) on one of the trees he liked to pee on. We kept his collar and a favorite toy, and they gave us paw prints (ink on paper, not clay.) I planned on giving the toy to the next dog, as his legacy, but one of our current dogs is a total toy destroyer so…that didn’t happen. (Which is sad because the other dog would probably cuddle it and love it and lick it tenderly, given the opportunity, haha.) I actually have a little bit of that dog’s undercoat hair fluff in a bag, because I was going to make it into yarn (I spin, and knit, and whatnot) but I haven’t so far. I know that’s a little weird and gross- I wouldn’t wear it, maybe just knit a little toy dog with it.

    Little animals I’ve always buried in the yard (or flushed, if they were fish.) If I were in a house I were planning on staying in pretty permanently, I think I’d bury our dogs there, otherwise… I’m not sure. They’re both very young so (nosetap) hopefully they have a while.

    • I don’t think turning the fur into yarn is weird. It was actually a Victorian tradition to save a lock of hair to commemorate the departed, sometimes incorporating it into jewelry or even 3-D art. I hope to learn more about this so when my own dear pup eventually goes to *insert Deity of Choice here*’s Great Cushion in the Sky, I can commemorate her this way.

    • When my last standard poodle took a turn for the worse, I asked my mother to clip some of her wool for me. Unfortunately my parents had to make the decision to have Layla put down without me present (I was away at university in another province), which was heartbreaking and understandable. I’m exceedinly glad my mum kept her wool, because i have since discovered the joys of needle felting. Poodle wol, when carded, is in increibly soft, and I intend to use it when I make a mobile for my baby. That was Layla can still be with us, along with her collar and favourite toy. I don’t think it’s morbid at all, but a lovely testament to her memory.

  10. Well this is odd timing. My cat passed away two days ago and my boyfriend’s passed away four days ago. We had a previous cat cremated because it was the easiest. The cat that just currently past though, we might bury her even though that’s illegal up here in Canada (at least in Ontario it is). After she passed, we got some modeling clay stuff that air dries so we got her paw prints and once it dries, we’re going to paint it.

  11. Man, this article has some great advice, but it also made me tear up. A couple of our friends just had to say goodbye to their kitty they’ve had for 13 years. They got him (Cloudy) cremated and have his remains in a nice wooden box with a plaque with his name. I don’t even like to think of our kitties passing on to the great sunshine patch in the sky, but this article gave me some things to consider when that day (NEVER!) comes.

  12. This post made me cry…

    Until I got to the part about the stuffed cat, and it reminded me of this girl I used to know. She told me once about how she had recently moved in with her boyfriend, and how she was so relieved that her cat was making friends with his cat. Except she went on to say that his cat was stuffed. It had died a few years before and now it lived on the bottom shelf of their bookcase, and apparently her cat would go over and rub against it. WTF do you say to that???

    • You say… “Good for them?”

      Gotta admit, though, the morbid inside me loves that story.

  13. I grew up on a farm so I had never really thought about this. Like Cat, my dad did that stuff. He even buried my pony. I am fairly certain that the last dog we had put down was cremated by the vet. Not sure what I will do about the current pets but probably cremation. I never knew where any of our pets was buried so I’d rather keep a toy or get an awesome statue or something (Windstone Editions makes some gorgeous statues including of kitties with or without wings and guinea pigs).

  14. Thanks for a great (though sad) post, Cat!
    My 17 year old cat passed away this May. She lived with my mum and dad in the house where we both grew up, so I wasn’t there when they put her to sleep. My mum and dad didn’t even tell me about it until a few days after, so I didn’t have any say in what would happen to her.
    I wish I had been more clear with my parents about what they should do if my cat died. I wanted her to be buried in the yard, so that I could have a place to go and visit her, even after she was gone. I keep thinking that I could have had this if I had just talked about it with my parents.
    Hopefully someone might learn from my mistake and talk about this with the people who take care of their pets (if they should happen, like me, to not share a home with their pet).

  15. There is at least one company that can professionally mummify pets, if you have the money for it. (It’s really expensive.)

    Reading this post made me cry, and I’m going to go hug my cats now, but it is a good list of suggestions on how to deal with such a sad subject.

  16. Uhhhhhhh hello? Pets live forever. Ahehehem. Ignoring this (well thought out, thanks for the info:)) super sad post and going to go home and hug all my animals now!

  17. I need to show this to my hubby … he has a family dog that still lives with his family, but she is quickly declining. He was set on having her stuffed. And put in the lounge. Um. No. Apart from the creep factor — we have two of our own dogs that love to destroy things. Can you imagine taxidermied dog shreds? No thanks.
    But my dogs and cat will never die, so it’s okay :p

  18. I snuck into a park and buried my cat.

    She had belonged to the daughter of some good friends, and she died at my apartment while I was over at their house. I was absolutely crushed. I was just moving out of the apartment, and she was going to live with another friend (she came to me because she couldn’t handle the new baby) and she died so suddenly. She was my only companion when I was without a roommate for the better part of a year, and I am convinced she could read my mind. I wasn’t sure what to do. My parents were in town (thank God!) and I remembered that my vet had cremated my pet mouse when I had to put her to sleep, and they sprinkle the ashes in a nice pet cemetery. But it was really up to the daughter who had owned her before, and she wanted to bury her in the woods near their house where she had roamed. We didn’t ask permission, we just did it.

    If you want a cry-your-eyes-out-over-a-pet-death-story, read Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary. I read it outloud to a girl I was babysitting and was a sobbing mess by the end of the chapter.

    • When my cat James was run over by a jerk in a big black truck, in front of me, no less, I had no choice other than to sneak into a park and bury him at night. I had no money, and after a few hours of hanging out with him on the porch and grieving, it was definitely time. The experience was traumatic as hell, but I would say that the three hours of digging his grave were very therapeutic. The physical labor of it gave me a way to expel some of the grief. I was also lucky to have a friend who was willing to help. The thing about burying a pet in a park is that even if you don’t own land, you can always return to that spot. That was very comforting to me. I also left a note under the door of the nature center at the park thanking them. A few years later, our rattie was also buried in that park. It’s a special place, and burying our pets there really brought closure.

  19. I grew up on an out of use farm. Our pet graveyard was in the woods just behind the back field. My Dad always covered the entire grave with big stones he pulled from the old rock walls that separate the fields. The stones were heavy enough that scavengers couldn’t move them to dig up the grave.
    Another thing my parents did when our family dogs were old and they could tell thier time was coming, was to dig a grave pre-emptively in the fall, just in case.
    On another, much less practical note, My parents decided 10 years ago that the thing, obviously, to do is to obtain 5 miniature donkeys. Donkeys who live at least 30 years. Which means, best case scenario, my parents will be in thier 80’s and 90’s worrying about digging giant graves for miniature donkeys.

  20. Ah this is a good post. I recently lost one of my childhood pets, a dog who was really special to my whole family. I’m an adult now with a family of my own but when I heard about our dog I went to the vet and then helped bury him with my step-dad. It was very emotional and I actually made the decision to bury him. My very first ever dog was buried out at my great-grandparents home, which we are lucky to still have in the family, so we buried him out there along with another dog we had.

    When we buried my first dog, my father dug the grave too shallow and she ended up getting scavenged. D: I still have the spot memorized and I’m planning on getting a grave marker for her. The second dog that passed away (one of my first dog’s puppies actually!) died the day after Christmas. My step-dad has access to a lot of heavy construction equipment. He took a backhoe out and dug a massive hole for him. The latest dog to pass away got a hand dug grave and we went down about four feet. So far he hasn’t been bothered.

    Burial to me is the easiest way to find closure, possibly because it’s ‘tradition’, but also because I feel like the animal has a special place and was ‘put to rest.’ I think it’s the actual process that brings closure.

  21. We always used to bury our pets in the back garden. The cat that died when I was littlest was the one we made the most fuss over – wrapped him in a fleece coat, with a little bag of food and some photos of us.

  22. I had my beloved 16 year old Rotti cremated. I am lucky enough to know a vet that understands that putting an animal down in the vets office can be traumatic for both owner and animal. When it was time, he came to my house and I held her in my arms as he put her to sleep.. (ok I’m crying now..) and she made the most terrible noise in the world. It will haunt me forever. BUT it was the right thing to do, and the right way to do it.
    Because I knew when and where it would be, I arranged to have the cremation people come about an hour after. She stayed covered in a blanket until then, although I continued to have my arm around her because she was still warm.. and sort of twitching.. (the vet warned me that this was normal-lucky he did or I would have been convinced that she was still alive – he warned me that she might make a noise too).
    Now I keep my babies ashes in a box, until the day I can afford to have her ashes made into a diamond (life gem) so I can have her with me always.
    In the mean time I am going to get a tattoo of her paw print, hopefully soon.
    Ok, far more info than I’m sure you needed, but it’s good to know in advance that they can still move and make noises after they pass and sometimes the vets don’t mention it.

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