Thankfully, there are more and more options for people who seek to memorialize and honor their pet’s passing. Pet crematories, pet funeral homes, and Animal Chaplaincy Services such as those I offer, as well as innumerable pet memorial products (see that link on this blog) exist to help people give a fitting end to their animal companion’s life. However, there is the not-fun-to-think-about topic of what to do with your pet’s physical body when he or she dies. This article should help. —Sid
Burying a Cat or Dog: What You Need to Know
It’s the last labor of love you’ll perform for your furry friend: making arrangements for pet burial or cat or dog cremation. Those final decisions are probably something you’d rather not think about, but somebody has to make sure your pet rests in peace—and within legal limits.
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Dealing with Pet Loss: The Vet is the Undertaker
You can count on your veterinarian to dispose of the body if you have your animal euthanized or if the pet dies at the veterinarian’s office.
If you’re considering pet cremation, with ashes to spread in a beloved area, ask your veterinarian for a referral.
If you’d prefer to bury your animal in your yard, let the veterinarian know as you check in for your last visit.
What to Do about Pet Disposal When an Animal Dies at Home
What do you do if your pet dies at home or is killed by a car and you don’t want to deal with the remains? In a city or large town, call your local Dead Animal Disposal Unit. Such officials will usually come and take the body for disposal. Who pays depends on city or county policy, but don’t be shy about asking whether you’ll incur any charges.
In a small town or rural area, find out whether similar services are available by calling the local Humane Society, sheriff’s office, or police department. Folks there should know or should be able to put you in touch with someone who does.
If you’re more comfortable bringing your dead animal to the vet’s office than having strangers cart off your pet, call and see whether your vet is willing to take care of the body. Most will be. Do this within a few hours of a pet’s death, as decomposition begins quickly.
Making a Pet Grave: Call Before You Dig
If you’re burying anything larger than a guinea pig, find out legal restrictions on burying animals in your yard by calling the county or city Dead Animal Disposal Unit. Most large towns and cities ban the practice because they’re worried about runoff water pollution, but you can sometimes plead for an exception to be made.
Animal burial is usually permitted in rural areas and small towns, but double-check with authorities. If you can’t find a number for the Dead Animal Disposal Unit in the town or county, call the local sheriff’s office or police department, the county health department, or the town hall to find out whom to ask.
Burial Details for a Cat or Dog Memorial
When you prepare to bury your pet, dig a hole deep enough to have at least one to three feet of dirt on top of the body. (Use the higher measure if you live in a wet climate or have light or sandy soil that washes away easily in rain.) That keeps marauding animals from disturbing the body, discourages curious kids from digging up the remains, and keeps the body from washing away in heavy storms.
It’s a good idea to keep all animal graves at least 250 feet from natural water sources such as springs and wells.
After the Pet Funeral, Let There Be New Life
Since you have the ground tilled anyway, consider planting some daffodil bulbs, a flowering bush, rosemary (to symbolize remembrance), or anything else that will commemorate your pet and give you a reason to come outside and think about the animal every now and then.
When the Cold, Cold Ground Is Too Cold
Sometimes the ground is too firmly frozen to allow burial of even the tiniest gerbil. In this case, you have two options: (1) Ask your veterinarian, the city, or the county to dispose of the body, or (2) put the body “on ice” until the ground thaws. If you choose the latter, “bury” a tiny animal in a clay or peat pot (do not use plastic) of indoor potting soil, wrap the pot in a plastic bag, and store the whole thing in a shed, unheated garage, crawl space, or unused tree house until you can “transplant” the body. After the soil thaws, take off the bag and bury the animal, pot and all. The whole thing will eventually become part of the soil. Don’t forget to take care of this as soon as the weather warms up. (Mark a reminder on your calendar!)
For a Bigger Animal, It’s a Bigger Deal
When the animal is larger than a toy breed or cat, it’s best to let the authorities take care of disposal, if that’s an option. But if you’re attached to the idea of burying your pet under his favorite tree out back and he dies in the middle of January, you can wrap the body in four layers of plastic leaf bags and place it in one of those giant handle-lock plastic garbage cans (available at home supply and discount stores). Transplant the body the second the ground can be worked, engaging a backhoe operator (look in the classified ads of your local newspaper under a heading such as “Livestock and Farm”) to dig up the area if necessary. Never proceed without first getting the approval of your city’s or county’s Dead Animal Disposal Unit or, in a small town, the local sheriff’s office or county health department.
Alternatively, check to see whether your vet might have a freezer storage area that you could use or rent until the ground thaws.