What to Do When Your Dog or Cat Dies, According to Pet Experts
In late 2022, at about 1 a.m. one night, I got a call at my hotel room in Colorado from my partner. It was a call I’d hoped never to get: My sweet 15-year-old Boston terrier Ollie had a seizure and couldn’t walk or breathe. They were on the way to the emergency vet, where he’d likely be put to sleep. The next two hours were atrocious. I waited for my partner to call back with an update, and then I watched my dog get euthanized on FaceTime while I howled with grief.
My partner handled everything, from taking Ollie to the vet to begin with, to arranging for delivery of his ashes and I’m forever grateful to him for that. Ollie was my first dog that was solely mine; I got him when he was eight weeks old. His passing made me realize that not only was I clueless about what needed to be done, but also that my emotional state would have made it near impossible to handle alone. If you also find yourself facing the sudden death of a pet, here’s what I learned needs to happen.
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Call your vet
First things first: Collect yourself, and then call your vet or the local emergency clinic if you’re out of town, your vet’s office is closed, or you don’t have a regular vet. If you’re alone, you may also want to ask a friend or family member to come over to support you. The vet will walk you through the next steps — and you’ll be grateful for the help, because the next task is handling your dog’s body.
If you can’t transport your pet to the vet right after they pass, “store the body properly in a sealed bag in a freezer, as their body will start to break down and decompose almost immediately,” says Rendy Schuchat, owner of dog training company Anything is Pawzible. Bring the body into the vet as soon as possible afterwards. Most vets will allow you to keep your pet there for a couple of days until you decide what you want to do for aftercare, like cremation or burial — but always ask if that’s a service they offer, just in case.
Decide on burial, cremation or other
What you do with your pet’s body after they die really depends on your personal preferences and local regulations. Ollie was cremated — it made the most sense because he was already at an animal hospital where they could take care of it. They cremated him there and returned the ashes to us a few days later. In my city, it’s also illegal to bury a pet in your yard if you don’t own the property, and I rent my home. Some municipalities outlaw pet burials completely, so cremation could be your only option, although you may be able to store the ashes at a cemetery.
Dr. Sabrina Kong DVM, a dog trainer and veterinary consultant at WeLoveDoodles.com, suggests asking your vet what services are available to you. They’ll have the most intel on reliable service providers nearby, and they likely already partner with some. You can also ask others whose pets have recently passed for advice on how they handled it.
Depending on local regulations, your options will include a backyard burial, burial in a pet cemetery, a private cremation (just your pet, and you get the ashes back) or a communal cremation (a group of pets cremated together, and you don’t get the ashes back). If none of that suits you, some other options exist. There’s aquamation, a more environmentally friendly version of standard cremation that uses a heated water-alkaline solution to break down the body. You can create an Eternal Reef, in which pet ashes are mixed with human ashes from the same family along with concrete to make an artificial coral reef or a living urn, which allows families to mix ashes with tree or flower seeds and plant them.
Keep in mind that costs vary with the type of service. A burial in your yard is free, communal cremation is the next most affordable option, burial in a cemetery is more expensive, and so on. Always ask about price when making your decision, to avoid any surprises when the bill arrives.
Deal with belongings and services
Here’s a tip that I learned when Ollie died: have the person who can best handle it (which may be a friend) go through your home and collect your dog’s belongings. They should put them all in one place for you to look through later, when you’re emotionally ready to face the task. That way, you won’t stumble into a stash of toys your dog hid and fall into another wave of depression. Because that’s how grief will come — in waves.
“The immediate loss of their presence can be overwhelming at first,” Schuchat says. “Missing the day-to-day activities you did with your dog will leave gaps in your routine, so do your best to create new routines when you are ready.”
You’ll also want to contact any groomers, vets or doggy daycares to let them know about your pup’s passing. No one wants to get a service reminder when you’re still grieving.
Lean on support networks
Most importantly, don’t underestimate the length of time it will take you to move on. I still have moments where I break down because I think I saw Ollie out of the corner of my eye, or I remember something vividly that he used to do at certain times.
“Dealing with a pet’s death is just as hard as dealing with any other loss, and you should give yourself and your family time to grieve, process and accept the fact,” Kong says. “There is no timeframe for you to recover, and you should be especially patient with little ones as kids aren’t used to death as much as adults.”
National Pet Loss Hotline offers free consultation to bereaved owners on a 24-hour basis at 1-800-946-4646.
If you do find that your grief over losing your pet just won’t pass, it might be time to talk to someone about it. Don’t be afraid to see a therapist or bring it up with friends. For many people, talking it through is an essential part of healing. Schuchat also suggests looking for online support groups to connect with people in the same situation.
“Know that there are others that understand your pain and sadness,” she says. “If you can connect with someone who has been in your shoes, it can help you through a process that unfortunately, doesn’t have an end date.”
Memorialize your pal
When I lost Ollie, I knew I wanted his ashes in a nice box, and the emergency vet also gave me a plaster pawprint medallion that I keep with his ashes. I also kept his leash, his tags and his favorite toy. My fiancé and I had planned to have Ollie in our wedding this year; my sister-in-law had even bought us a “Best Dog” bandanna for him to wear. That’s now also on display with his ashes. At the wedding, we’ll have a table with a book I made of his photos and the bandanna — that way he’s still there in some form.
“Sometimes honoring your pet with a donation or memorial will help you through your grieving process,” Schuchat says. She suggests donating to an animal rescue organization in your dog’s name, turning some of their ashes into keepsake jewelry, planting a tree where they liked to nap outside or sprinkling their ashes in their favorite place. Check local regulations before scattering anything, though — it might not be legal where you live.
Kong notes that some artists will make art pieces with your pet’s ashes, an option that she says has grown in popularity over the past few years. “The most important thing is to remember them in your heart and honor them in whatever way makes you feel good about their memory,” she adds.
Don’t adopt right away
You or your loved ones may want to get another pet right away to dull the pain of losing your furry friend. Take Kong’s advice and give it some time. You’ll want to hold off on a new pet or any other major life changes for the moment — it’s important to process your grief. Give it a few months, at least, until you feel at peace about their death. Don’t get another pet until you’re fully confident you can begin a relationship with a new furry friend, Kong says.
“You’ll know it’s the right time to get a new pet when you’re ready to open your heart to love again and are able to provide the necessary care and attention for a new furry companion in your life.”
Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, bestselling author, and editor of the Kitchen Witch Newsletter. She is currently dreaming of an around-the-world trip with her Boston terrier. Check out her website at jenniferbillock.com.