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

Posted by

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. All our pets have been dealt with at the vets, all but one being put to sleep at the vets.

    I dont know what happened to them after that and personally dont want to. I’m very much a believer that once you’re dead thats it. In my mind to make a big deal with funerals, burials etc just prolongs the agony. So to me, all my pets died and the vets did whatever they had to.

    Of course it does mean I have quite negative connotations regarding the vets, especially after always going to one vet practice, but it also means that there is no one place I regularly frequent that upsets me so much. Plus I’d never forgive myself if I were to bury a pet and later move house.

  2. I didn’t see it mentioned, so I would like to point out that the laws regarding funeral pyres rarely apply to pets, since they are usually defined as property under law. I know you can give your pet a fiery send-off here if your county allows trash burning. Not debating the ethics of those type of laws, just thought it was worth mentioning. You can probably call your local pet licensing office to check.

    • I wanted to add that sometimes cities have their own laws governing what to do with remains. For example, where I live, pets of a certain size (if not all pets) cannot be sent home to be buried, they must be cremated. Obviously, this applies only if your pet passes while at the vet or emergency pet hospital.

  3. Well, this just made me start sobbing at work. A very well written post, with some great advice.

    We just lost our sweet cat about two months ago at the untimely age of 7 (she developed large cell lymphoma) and we were very bonded, so it has been very hard being without her. We did the individual cremation and have her in a beautiful cherry wood box. I also took some of her ashes and had them made into a glass necklace by a company called Love Ashes. It is a beautiful work of art and helps me feel like she is still with me.

  4. Oh my word people, I read this yesterday and thought ‘thank goodness all my pets are young at the moment and I don’t have to go through all of this for a few more years’. I didn’t nose tap. Tonight I realise I cannot hear my foster guinea pig chatting away, and find her unconscious, limp and gasping. She was still living with the rabbit that she was brought to me with, and it seems that somehow or another her spine was broken. She was also suffering internal bleeding. I held her, feeling grateful that she was at least unconscious as she slowly slipped away. I’m a bunny person, and love them dearly, but when it comes to creatures that are smaller – they do not understand their own strength. I am planning on submitting a post on bunny keeping – and will not be including a large warning. Do not keep bunny with guinea pigs. Too much can go wrong.

  5. If you have to take your pet to the vet to be put down, or if your pet dies at home and you are taking advantage of having the vet cremate its remains, you can often request that they clip a lock of fur and make a paw-print in modeling clay. I for one am not a fan of keeping mementos mori around, so I try to take pictures of my fur children as often as possible so that (gulp!) once they’re gone (which will never, ever, ever happen because they’ve both been instructed to live FOREVER) I have images to remember them with. And in the meantime, I use those images to make LOLcats.

  6. we buried my wife’s dog in the yard (he was only 2, got hit by a car). a friend came over when it happened, and he and i dug the hole. we happen to have a number of enormous flat rocks in our yard, so we relocated one over the grave.

    don’t forget to take care of your other pets as well as yourself. at first, my dog curled up on top of the stone, and piled every ball in the yard on it (even though he doesn’t really play with balls; her dog did). it was doubly heartbreaking. he also tried (fortunately, not very hard) to dig him up. so, you might watch for that too.

    • Thank you for this, I was just thinking “How can I cry harder?” I have to go wipe my tears with my 6 year old chihuahua now….

  7. My childhood cat had to be put down a few months ago. I wasn’t in charge, and I didn’t live at home anymore, so my mother got the final call on what the vet did with Kitty. My mother had her cremated, and Kitty currently resides in a pretty box with her name on it in my mother’s curio cabinet. Considering that Kitty always wanted to get in there, I think she’d be happy with that. And she did go off to be cremated with a big hot pink lipstick mark from our neighbor who would come and feed her and my dog in the middle of the day, so everyone got to know how loved my Kitty was.

  8. Well, this post made me cry at work. *sniffle*

    Unfortunately, this is a very real thing my family and I will have to deal with soon. We have a family dog, nearing the end of his life sometime. We got him when I was 9. He’s 15 now.

    I hope we get him cremated (privately), and do a special thing for him. We do celebrate his birthday every year and give him Christmas presents, so I think a proper memorial is in order.

    My only question is…what do people do as a part of their grieving process? I don’t think I’d be able to go to work immediately after my dog goes…he’s been family for 15 years!

    • Oddly, and sadly, enough…the day I wrote this my lovely Louie-dog (a black lab border collie cross) died. 🙁

      I cried a lot yesterday, and I’m crying still today (I’m considering going home to get it out of my system).

      My mom found Louie in the backyard, lying in his usual spot, so when she called him to get inside, he wouldn’t come. She went out to get him, and he just looked at her with tired eyes. She managed to get him inside, but he wouldn’t eat his treats. But he followed my mom around and lay next to her. But she said he was so tired looking, and wouldn’t eat or drink. So she called my dad who was out of town on business, and they decided to take him to the vet. Luckily we have the best vet in the world (the entire staff petted him and comforted my mom, and Dr. Bob is so gentle). Dr. Bob said he wouldn’t last much longer, and if we let him live it out, he would be in a lot of pain since he wasn’t eating or drinking. They put him to sleep, and my mom said he looked so peaceful and happy.

      She got him privately cremated, and when the entire family is all together again in September, we’re going to go scatter his ashes at the lake in his favourite park and have little memorial for him.

  9. We have had all of our past family pets cremated and buried under a rose bush at my parents house. That rose bush was the only thing from the yard of their last house to move with them. As a bonus to being able to keep the bush, each pet that has been buried under it has contributed a colour to the blooms, so what started out as a single pink rose bush, now blooms pink, yellow and peach roses. It’s a lovely way to remember your pets and keep them with you always without having to worry about transplanting the plant and finding remains underneath.

  10. I’ve had pets all my life, so we’ve done a few things. For my current cats, I plan to get their ashes back, mix them into one of those cement stone molds, and then decorate them and add their names. It will be like a little headstone, and then I’ll put them in the garden where all the birds and buggies dwell. Whenever we were commemorating a cat in my family, they usually got a bush or flower that attracts bugs and birds.

  11. I read this article yesterday afternoon. Yesterday evening, my husband brought home a puppy. This morning, our Puppy died.
    The world can be cruel. It amazes me how things like that work.

  12. Last year my 21 year old cat, Sorrow, had to be put down. The best decision I made was to pony up the extra money to have the vet come to my home to euthanize her. Sorrow was never fond of going in the car, and I wanted her last day to be as pleasant as I could make it. She wasn’t in good shape, and it was obvious she’d go on her own in a few days. As I had had her through thick and thin for the entirety of her life, it was very important to me to be able to ensure she was comfortable, make some last good memories and say good bye in a peaceful environment. The vet was very compassionate, asked questions about her life and listened to stories for quite a while. She was also kind enough to make a pawprint on a piece of clay before she had to do the procedure.

  13. Our dogs have always died at the vet’s office, so we had them cremated. Not sure what happened to the ashes – the latest is still in a box in the garage. When my cats died, my father threw the bodies in the swamp. Same with my guinea pig when I was ten. I was pretty upset at the time, but it doesn’t bother me now.

  14. My childhood cat came with me to live when I moved out on my own and she was seventeen when she died. She wasn’t doing so well one afternoon (she had been sick with failing kidneys for a few months), so I made a vet appointment for the next day to have her euthanized. She held on all evening while I was in class and died in my arms shortly after I got home. This was over ten years ago, and I still get all teary-eyed when I think that she waited to see me before she left.

    My boyfriend (now husband) sweetly put her in the trunk of my car for the night since it was winter, and I took her into the vet the next day to get her cremated. Her ashes are in a tiny box inside a bigger wooden box that also contains the sweater I was wearing when she died, a few of her toys, and the sympathy card with her paw print the vet had sent me. I still hold onto the plan that I will bury that box when we move into a house with our own yard, since I would feel weird burying her in our condo’s yard that we share with three neighbors.

  15. Here in San Francisco (where few people have a back yard) we have our own free pet cemetery. Technically it’s retired and for historical purposes only…but I totally buried my little puffer fish there, and many other people still bury their pets there too.

    When I was growing up, we always buried my pets under the huge trees in the back of our yard. However, I strongly recommend ONLY burying your pets in your yard if you plan to be there for many many years to come. After we moved when I was 13, the people who bought the house ripped out all the trees–and, I’m sure, my pets with them, one of which had only been in the ground for a year.

    I had one of my other dogs cremated individually. Compared to human cremation, it was very affordable, and I kept her in a wooden box as I moved from one place to another throughout my teens and early 20’s. When I moved to my current home, I discovered a big gorgeous park beloved by countless numbers of dogs, and knew that my dog would have loved it there too. I felt the time and place was right, so one windy day I went there and scattered her ashes.

  16. My life partner JuneBug walked away when it was her time. I honestly don’t know what her side of the story is, but I have been pretty devastated by the way she ended our 14 year relationship. Ultimately, I made artwork to honor her passing as part of that process I wrote out a mythology outlining what happens to our souls when we depart this world – I am in the process of making the whole thing into a children’s story. The bones of it are here (in the form of an artist statement for the work which was done for school) http://q-no-u.blogspot.com/2011/02/passage.html I miss my girl everyday. She was my constant and my anchor.

    • I’m sorry for your loss. It sounds like leaving you, as painful as that was, was her last act of love to you. She was sparing you the pain and difficulty of dealing with her body in addition to your loss. It’s touching to think she was trying to protect you, even if it wasn’t what you wanted.

  17. I just looked at my shop referrals and found your blog. Thank you for mentioning my cat urns. I made my first for my 19 1/2 year old Fred. We buried him the backyard but I wanted to make something to hold his collar. I made a little lidded jar with his likeness on top. Since then it has been my sincere honor to make many urns for many people. I’m so glad what I do can bring a little comfort to folks when they lose their furry family members.

  18. a few months ago we had to put to sleep one of our cats quite suddenly (she was old and only 6 months prior we had rescued her as a stray off the street). We loved her though. As we have two other cats and 2 dogs (we didnt want to risk her being dug up) the animal hospital offered to keep her body and bury it for us. The animal hospital chaplain came with us to the ICU and explained where the property was that she would be buried and after the terrible act of putting her to sleep was done, the chaplain cut a lock of her fur for us and gave us back her collar and tag. At first I was like “A lock of her fur??? thats so morbid”, but my husband thought it was a good idea, and now Im so grateful we have it. The chaplain even called us the following day to see how we were and to offer us some emotional assistance. Many people I have spoken to think that this is total hogwash and dont appreciate being contacted by the chaplain but I can honestly say (even as a non religious person) having some there for us especially in ICU at the hospital was gold. Im so grateful for that assistance.

  19. Years ago, my beloved ginger ninja Amber was run over while I was out of town. She was my first ever pet. The friend who was housesitting buried her in our garden, and bought a rose for her – the rose was named Faithful Friend.

    I sat in the yard and /howled/ when I got home, and it was such a lovely lovely gesture on her part. That was ten years ago, and the rose is still blooming. And I still miss my ginger ninja, even though I have three wonderful cats ruling the house.

  20. We had to put our little rat buddy Thomas the Rat Engine to sleep four days ago since he started having seizures all the time and the vet said he probably wouldn’t ever come out of it. I painted a memorial portrait of him from photos we had, to help me process and so we can keep his memory in our home.

  21. My Randolph is 22 years old. He’s blind, slightly senile and incontinent. His quality of life has not dropped to the point where we are considering having him put down yet, but we have decided what we are going to do.
    We are going to have his DNA sample preserved until we can clone him. No joke. http://www.fluffy2.com/index.html
    We will have his body cremated and the ashes put in this canoptic jar http://www.amazon.com/Egyptian-Bastet-Bronze-Canopic-Burial/dp/B003P57MRQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1314749280&sr=8-2

  22. I want to thank you for this article, it has been cathartic beyond words for me at this point. Yesterday I had to put to rest Calvin, my horse and dear friend that I have had since I was 15 years old, he was my best friend and saw me through every up and down turn of life. However, after a long struggle with a rare form of cancer it was best to euthanize him so he would no longer be in pain, and I know he was peaceful in the end, it doesn’t change how hard it has been, still crying through it all. I chose to have his body sent to a Cornell, a teaching vet hospital for a necropsy and cremation. I know that may sound morbid, but it does give me some solace that his passing won’t be in vain, and that they can learn something from his cancer. As for the remains, I want to be able to have a part of him to bury with the rest of my family pets at my parents farm, and sprinkle his ashes in all the places he love riding and grazing. Thank you again, and the big animals are just as much members of our family as the kitties and doggies.

  23. If you bury your animal in your yard make sure you use a marker to mark the site. We forgot to with our one cat who had died much earlier and we accidently dug her up when we had to bury our other cat, thinking her grave was a few feet over. needless to say i was not impressed with myself.

    • I usually try to bury my critters when they pass on but the odd time we have had one die of old age 17 years in the middle of winter so we ended up cremating and burying the urn in summber

Read more comments

Comments are closed.