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Preparing for the Death of a Pet

Thinking ahead of time about aftercare options can reduce heartache and stress.

  • Thinking through what will happen after the death of a loved one can help us process grief and make informed decisions ahead of time.
  • Preparing for the death of a pet, or "preplanning," isn't as common as preplanning in human realm, but has value.
  • Some things to consider when preplanning include thinking about who you would like to have present, what rituals you would like to perform and how to prepare, store, transport and manage the body.
  • Preplanning can offer pet owners many benefits, such as reducing stress, giving them a chance to say goodbye and enabling them to make choices that better reflect their values.

As hard as it is to think about, planning ahead for what will happen after a companion animal dies can save you unnecessary stress and heartache. “Preplanning” means thinking about what will happen immediately after death and can include decisions about handling and disposition of the body, as well as decisions about memorialization.

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Source: engin akyurt/unsplash

In the human hospice context, a social worker and chaplain will often spend considerable time trying to help families think through what will happen after the death of a loved one before death actually occurs. Immediately after death, all kinds of decisions need to be made—and nearly all of these can be made ahead of time.

These preplanning discussions serve three important purposes. First, they can help families process grief by inviting them to touch on the reality that death is going to occur. Second, they can set families up so that when a family member does die, the focus is on saying goodbye and grieving, rather than on the many practical decisions that need to be made. Third, by giving families the opportunity to explore options and make choices at a relaxed pace rather than in a time of crisis, preplanning helps assure that people can make informed decisions in line with what they most value and within their budget.

Preplanning has considerable value within the realm of animal end-of-life (EOL) care, too. Unfortunately, preplanning for the death of pets rarely gets the attention it deserves.

Although there are various published recommendations for pet owners about decision-making at the very end of life (“knowing when it is time”), very few of these extend to consideration of after-care. Typically, when euthanasia is chosen for a companion animal (and in the U.S., most pet owners choose euthanasia for their animal, rather than hospice-assisted natural death—an indication that caregivers are unaware of the range of options available to them), the veterinarian or veterinary hospital performing the euthanasia will handle after-care. Counseling about options, if it happens at all, will take place during, not before, the euthanasia visit, and the range of options presented may reflect the narrow set of options chosen by the veterinarian.

What to Consider When Preplanning

Fortunately, some veterinarians and animal advocates are trying to change the landscape of EOL care, and one of the key components of their advocacy is to make sure families have adequate resources to engage in preplanning: that they can access information, understand the range of options available to them, and thus make informed decisions. (See my blog post about an important new research study that explores expectations of pet owners about EOL and after-death support.)

I talked with veterinarian Kathy Cooney, the founder and director of The Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy (CAETA) and long-time advocate for better EOL care experiences for animals and their human caregivers. She suggests that after-care considerations might include some or all of the following:

  • Rituals of passing: as your animal dies or shortly after (prayers, candles, singing, etc.)
  • Who to have present: just you, close family, friends? children?
  • Who to notify and how: list of family, friends (human and canine), pet sitters, etc.
  • Preparation of the body: How long do you want the body to be in your house/with you? Would you like to groom or clean the body? Cover the body in a shroud or special blanket?
  • Post-mortem body storage and transport: How long will the body remain with the human family; how will the body be transported; how will the body be contained (body bag, black trash bag), how will the body be stored? (Refrigerated or frozen? Where? For how long?) If you are having your veterinarian arrange cremation for you, you may want to ask for these details. They typically won’t tell unless asked.
  • Disposition of the body: It is your right to decide what you would like to happen to the body of your animal. Some questions you might ask: Are you going to choose burial or cremation? Or are you going to donate the body to a veterinary school? If you choose cremation, will it be fire-based or alkaline hydrolysis (water-based is an environmentally friendly option)? If cremation, which crematory? Will you be present for the cremation? If burial, where, in what (casket, shroud), and who will provide these things? In a pet cemetery, a human cemetery that allows humans and pets to be buried in adjoining plots, or on your own land (is it legal in your county)? For cremation, have a place picked out or talk to your veterinarian about which crematorium they partner with. Decide if you want private cremation or group cremation. Ask the crematory how they ensure that the remains you receive are actually from your pet. (Do they have a good tracking system? How precisely does it work?) How long will it take you to have remains returned to you and how will they be returned? (Do you pick them up at the vet clinic? Will they be in an urn or in a cardboard box?) You do not have to use the crematory recommended by your veterinarians; research on your own; read reviews; ask to visit. If they tell you no, move on to another facility.
  • Disposition of remains: Decide whether you would like remains returned to you and in what kind of container (you can pick out an urn of your choice or choose one offered by a crematory).
  • Keepsakes: Some veterinarians will make a clay pawprint. You can ask for a small clipping of fur or may want to ask to keep the skull or tail or some other piece of your animal.

In addition to being able to make informed choices that help you honor your beloved companion, preplanning allows you to assess how much various options will cost, avoiding uncomfortable surprises when you already have a lot on your mind.

Final Thoughts on Preplanning

Dr. Cooney notes that preplanning can offer a range of benefits for pet owners facing the unthinkable: the imminent loss of their companion.

With preplanning, you may benefit from:

  • reduced stress when the inevitable occurs
  • less opportunity for regret, less sense of having made less-than-ideal decisions
  • the chance to focus on saying goodbye and grieving
  • greater opportunity to identify what you value. (Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for the decisions you make. For some people, a dead body is just that—it doesn’t have particular significance. A group cremation without return of the ashes may be fine. For others, the body is deeply significant and handling the body in a certain way is spiritually and morally important.)
  • an increased range of options

It is not morbid to think through death before it occurs. It can help you process grief and make informed decisions that you feel comfortable with and that best preserve what you value from your relationship with your animal companion.

References

Kathleen A. Cooney, Lori R. Kogan, Summer L. Brooks, Coleen A. Ellis, Pet Owners’ Expectations for Pet End-of-Life Support and After-Death Body Care: Exploration and Practical Applications, Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, Volume 43, 2021, 100503, ISSN 1938-9736, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tcam.2020.100503.

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