Once your pet has been euthanased, there are a number of different aftercare options. It is often possible for veterinary practices to keep pets bodies ‘on hold’ in a cold room if you need more time to make a decision about aftercare after euthanasia has been performed. However if time allows, it is definitely better to discuss aftercare options beforehand with your family and your veterinary practice, and try to make a decision before the final day. This will help to minimise the stress of the final day and also to make sure that you are not trying to make a decision about aftercare in an emotionally distraught state immediately after your pet’s euthanasia when your judgment may be impaired and you may make a hasty decision that you later regret.
One of the first decisions that you may need to consider is whether your pet should have a post-mortem or not (see Should my pet have a post-mortem?).
There are a number of different aftercare options and ideally you should choose the one which you feel best preserves the memory of your pet. In reality the final choice often depends on a combination of personal/spiritual, practical and financial considerations and remember that there is no right or wrong, only what is right for you.
As far as spiritual considerations are concerned, some people for example do not believe in the concept of a ‘soul’; others do not feel that their pet’s soul and spirituality is linked in any way to their physical remains. These individuals may therefore place less emphasis on aftercare options. For others, having the physical remains in close proximity provides a greater sense of on-going spiritual closeness to their pet or simply a greater sense of comfort. These considerations are entirely natural and extremely important. You will most likely know your own preferred option for aftercare intuitively. However it is important to make sure that the final decision is a family one and to remember that there is no right or wrong decision, just differences in opinion.
There are a large number of pet crematoria available (see Pet Crematoria and Cemeteries), many of whom offer visits of their premises as well as other services such as memorial gardens. Most veterinary practices will use the services of one particular crematorium often developing a relationship over several years. In general the pet crematorium will collect your pet’s body from the practice for cremation (collections are typically twice a week). However should you prefer you are free to enlist the services of a different crematorium; it would be sensible to clarify this beforehand with your practice.
If you decide to have your pet cremated, the next decision is whether to have a communal or an individual cremation:
a) Communal cremation:
This is when your pet’s body is cremated along with the bodies of other people’s pets; in some pet crematoria the ashes are then scattered in a garden of remembrance. Following a communal cremation it may be possible to have token ashes returned to you – however you must remember that these may or may not be from your own pet. A communal cremation is typically significantly less expensive than an individual cremation.
b) Individual cremation:
This is when your pet’s body is cremated individually and it is therefore possible to have his/her ashes returned. Most crematoria offer a number of different urns, caskets or scatter boxes according to your preference and it is worth researching and deciding this beforehand – e.g. do you want to keep the ashes in the home, bury them in the garden or scatter them in one of your pet’s favourite spots or on their favourite walk? It may also be possible to have the ashes returned in a less elaborate container while having an urn or casket made privately to suit your own design requirement – you will find links to selected makers of pet urns/caskets here. In general it takes up to 2 weeks following euthanasia for your pet’s ashes to be returned.
One of the questions owners often ask is “how do I know that my pet has been cremated individually and these are actually his/her ashes?”. In general it is not possible for you to witness the cremation process but some crematoria may allow this. Most crematoria however are very happy for you to visit them and see the process involved once your pet has been collected from your practice up to the point of actual cremation. Furthermore, many pet crematoria are well-established family-run enterprises set up by pet lovers and built on a reputation for trust and compassion.
As an alternate to cremation, you can choose to have your pet’s body buried. If you decide to have a burial then the next decision is where; the two main options are at a pet cemetery or in your own property.
a) Pet cemetery:
A number of pet crematoria also offer burial services (see Pet Crematoria and Cemeteries), and in some cases it is possible to hold a form of funeral service prior to burial. You should research this well in advance of the day of euthanasia if possible, including discussing options for coffins with the cemetery. You will find links to selected makers of pet coffins here.
Advantages of using a pet cemetery include: cemetery staff prepare the grave and perform the actual burial – this is especially useful for large dogs; cemetery staff will maintain the grave; the burial site is likely to be more permanent; using a formal pet cemetery may convey a greater sense of respect and commemoration. Disadvantages include greater cost compared with a home burial, including possible on-going maintenance costs, and often a greater distance to travel when you want to visit the grave.
b) Home burial:
Rather than burying their pet’s ashes, many owners prefer to bury their pet’s body at home in the garden, and it is possible to order headstones or other ornaments to mark the grave site. If a home burial is performed it is important to ensure that the grave is sufficiently deep (1.25 metres deep is the recommendation) to try and ensure that your pet’s body is not dug up and scavenged; covering the grave site with rocks/stones for example is also advisable to prevent other animals from digging up the area. Your pet’s body being dug up can be very distressing for you and it is also worthwhile to remember that the euthanasia drug administered to your pet may be harmful to any animal that subsequently ingests the drug. When digging the grave site, be careful also to avoid electricity cables, water pipes or similar. Also avoid placing your pet's body in a plastic bag as these are usually non-biodegradable meaning that the bag and its contents will not be able to degrade naturally over time.
Advantages of a home burial include the fact that the garden at home is often one of your pet’s favourite spots; it is close by allowing you to visit and maintain the grave as you like and providing a continued sense of closeness to your pet. Furthermore some people are more comfortable with holding a funeral or memorial service on their own property rather than at a pet cemetery.
Disadvantages of home burial include the fact that digging a deep grave and burying your pet can be manually very difficult when bigger dogs are involved. In addition, should you choose to move home you will usually no longer be able to visit the grave site or ensure that the site is not dug up or used for another purpose. Home burial is not usually an option for rental properties and it may also be advisable to check with your local authority that it is allowed even in a property that you own yourself.
Another option that some owners consider with respect to burial is to try and bury their pet in a public place that the pet liked to visit – e.g. a local park or forest. However it is essential to check with your local authority whether this is allowed – and it often will not be. Furthermore graves in public spaces are more vulnerable to interference and desecration.
Many pet owners choose to have one or more personal items buried or cremated with their pet’s body – for example a special toy, blanket, name tag etc. The crematorium will be able to advise on what is allowed.
Lastly, you may wish to clip a bit of your pet’s fur as a keepsake.
Should my pet have a post-mortem?
As with many of the decisions around the loss of a pet, this to a large extent is a matter of personal opinion. In many cases a post-mortem may not even be discussed as being appropriate – this usually applies to pets in which a diagnosis has already been made or there are multiple different problems classified as being due to ‘old age’. However there are a number of pets that die or are euthanased on welfare grounds due to deterioration in their condition in which the cause of their illness is not known. A discussion about post-mortem is appropriate in such cases.
A post-mortem can provide more information about the illness or injury that resulted in the death of your pet. For some people this information can help to provide reassurance that the decision to euthanase their pet was the right one and can bring a sense of closure. Even if this is not the case, many people like to think that their pet’s death can contribute in some way to advancing veterinary medicine and helping to treat other animals; in complicated cases where a diagnosis has not been made beforehand, post-mortem can provide valuable scientific information.
Nevertheless some people are really not comfortable with the thought of their pet undergoing an invasive procedure such as a post-mortem; they feel that this would be to violate their pet in death. In other cases, people do not think that any information obtained will provide them personally with a sense of closure – “it won’t bring him/her back”. In many cases the cost of a post-mortem falls to the owner and this must be borne in mind, and it must always be remembered that the post-mortem may prove inconclusive. Finally, following a post-mortem, it is typically not possible for your pet’s body to be returned for burial and cremation is usually the only aftercare option available.
There are therefore arguments for and against a post-mortem, which depend to an extent on the patient in question. There are personal, scientific and financial considerations and the most important thing is that you must be comfortable with the decision you make. It is usually preferable for a post-mortem to be performed as soon as possible after death and you should therefore try and discuss this beforehand with your veterinarian if you do want a post-mortem to be performed. This is very important as not all veterinary practices can access post-mortem services in the necessary timeframe and special arrangements may need to be made.