My friend Sara lost her 14 year old dog Finn recently. Although Finn had seemed in perfect health, he had become very lethargic over the course of several weeks. Sara was concerned. She took Finn to the vet, only to discover that the dog's entire body was riddled with cancer. On the vet's advice, Sara decided to have Finn euthanized on the spot. She told me that it was simply too painful to watch, so she said goodbye to Finn and left before the euthanasia procedure began. What happened to Finn during his death, and what happened to his body afterwards, remain a mystery—and one that, frankly, she would rather not think about.
Like Sara, you may feel that you would just rather not know what happens to dead pets, in which case you should stop reading right now. But if what happens to your animal's body is important to you then read on. It can be incredibly painful to contemplate the death of an animal companion. I can tell you from hard experience, though, that it is worth thinking ahead of time about what will happen to your pet's body after death, so that you don't harbor regret over things done or not done. In my next blog, I'll take you on a tour of an actual pet crematorium. But first, here is some background on pet cremation.
If you have your pet euthanized by a vet, they will likely offer you the option of having the body cremated (for an additional fee, of course). Cremation represents the professionalizing of the death industry for pets: the number of pet crematories is growing rapidly, in response to increasing demand, and cremation is now more common than burial in a yard or cemetery. The cremation process is becoming standardized, with various ancillary businesses providing support (pet-specific incinerators, urns in various sizes).
Vets typically serve as the death middlemen. They take the bodies from owners, and then—in a process that generally remains opaque—pass them on to crematory operators. If an animal is euthanized at the vet's office, a veterinary assistant will, once the animal's family is well out of sight, place the body in black trash bag and stick it in the freezer until the scheduled crematory pick up day. Once a week, perhaps, a truck will come and fetch a load of bodies and take them to the crematory.
There are three types of pet cremation: private, comingled, and partitioned. In a private cremation, only one animal's body is in the oven. During a partitioned cremation, multiple animals may be in the incinerator at the same time, but they are separated so that the remains from each can be collected separately. Some "active comingling" of remains is unavoidable. Communal cremation is the burning of several animals at once, without any form of separation. Pet owners are often confused, and occasionally misled, about what kind of cremation their animal receives. They may ask for their animal's remains to be returned, and assume that this means the animal received a private cremation, when in fact it might have been a partitioned cremation. The cremains may be mostly their animal, but active comingling means that the cremains will also include little tiny bits of other pets. Even with truly private cremations, some residual mixing—what the industry calls "unavoidable incidental comingling"—of remains will occur, since it is near impossible to remove every speck of material from the oven in between cremations.
Many people are concerned about what happens to their animal's body, and they sometimes might not like what they see. Aftercare consultant Coleen Ellis admits that there are unscrupulous providers, like the crematory operator who took a grieving family's dog, and their money, and gave them back some cremains—but never actually cremated their pet, instead leaving the carcass to rot in back of his building. Several veterinarians have confessed to me that they would not want their own pets treated the same as the pets of their clients.
If you are concerned about what happens to your pet's body after you leave the vet's office or after the vet takes your animal from your home, the best thing to do is ask a lot of questions. What will happen to the body? Will it be cremated or taken to a landfill or donated to a veterinary school? If you have chosen and paid for cremation, how exactly is the body handled? How it is wrapped, transported? Is it stored in a cooling room or freezer? How can you be assured that the cremains are really from your pet? Although it was uncomfortable for me to know the gory details, I also found it very helpful. I just wish I had asked these questions before my dog died, rather than after the fact.