Whether a precious pet has just died or you have a terminally ill or elderly pet that you know is coming to the end of their life, you may be thinking about aftercare options for their body or planning a memorial. We’ve put together a list of dos and don’ts that should help you make some decisions at this difficult time:
Pet memorial dos
1. DO explore the different options for your pet’s memorial and aftercare
None of us wants to think about the day when a beloved pet isn’t with us anymore. Sadly, if that day has already happened for you or you know it’s fast approaching then there will be decisions to make.
What would you like to do with your loved one’s body? Would you like them to be cremated or is there a suitable place for a burial?
In the UK, it is legal to bury a deceased pet in your garden if you own the property. However, it’s illegal in the garden of a rented property or a public space. An alternative option is burial in a pet cemetery or cremation, after which you can choose what to do with your pet’s ashes.
2. DO plan ahead if you can
It isn’t always possible to know when a pet’s life is about to come to an end. However, because most animals have a much shorter lifespan than us humans, the reality is that we will face end of life and aftercare decisions for our pets at some point in the future.
Knowing this, it’s a good idea to plan ahead as much as possible. Explore aftercare options in advance and make a note of what you would prefer to happen when your pet dies. Although it’s a tough thing to think about, planning in advance can help you navigate important decisions when you’re grieving.
3. DO give yourself time with your deceased pet if you want or need it
It’s okay to take some time with your deceased pet if you want or need it. Many of us take comfort from spending some time saying goodbye.
A good vet, either in their practice or performing euthanasia in your home, will offer you a chance to spend some time alone with your pet.
If your pet dies at home, you can decide to keep their body for twenty-four hours before arranging for them to be collected by a representative from your veterinary surgery or the local pet crematorium, or before carrying out a burial at home. If you do decide to keep your pet’s body overnight, it’s important to place them somewhere cool. Also, do be aware that rigor mortis – the stiffening of the joints after death – will set in after three to four hours.
4. DO ask the rest of your pet’s immediate family what they would like to do
If there are other family members living in your household then try to talk to them about all of the issues above while your pet is alive and well. It will help if you all feel like your wishes are being respected and that you’re all comfortable with aftercare decisions being made for your pet.
5. DO recognise that your other pets may grieve
If you have other pets in your home that spent a lot of time with your deceased companion then you may find that their behaviour changes as they come to terms with their loss. It’s widely accepted that many animals are capable of grief and it’s often present in a multi-pet household. Just like you, your grieving pet needs time to adjust to life without their friend. You may notice that they’re subdued or they want to eat less, for example. Naturally, if you’re at all concerned about your remaining pets and any aspect of their behaviour, it’s always advisable to get them checked over by a vet.
6. DO allow yourself to feel all of your emotions
There is a growing acceptance that losing a pet can be as devastating as losing a human friend or family member. Those of us who love animals have sadly lived the truth of this.
Unfortunately, though, many people still feel that they can’t talk about their bereavement or openly show their grief.
As we’ve explored in past articles, bottling up your feelings can lead to incomplete grief.
Do try to allow your different emotions space to exist – it’s natural to feel sad, angry, guilty and much more. It’s also natural to have happy moments. If you don’t feel able to talk about your loss with your friends and family, you could speak to a pet bereavement support service or chat to other bereaved pet carers in The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook.
7. DO encourage your children to grieve
If you have children, it’s important that they know that it’s OK to grieve for their much-loved pet. Encourage them to express their feelings, talk about your pet and create their own memorial.
It’s helpful if you can be open and honest about your own feelings as this will show your children that it’s natural to feel a whole host of emotions. Of course, their grief may look different from yours. The best thing to remember and to share with them is that there is no right or wrong way to feel.
8. DO keep your pet’s memory alive
It will probably be hard to think about the happy times with your pet for some time ahead.
Many people in The Ralph Site’s Facebook group talk about constantly reliving how their pet died and finding it hard to remember the good times. You might try not to think about your pet because it makes you too upset.
We promise you that there will be space in your memories for the happy times one day. Most of us reach a point where our pet’s life becomes bigger and more vivid than the moment of their death. It takes time though. A memorial such as a scrapbook, photo album or memory box is a powerful way to keep your pet’s memory alive.
9. DO give yourself time to grieve
Grief doesn’t have a set timeline. For many of us, it never fully goes away, although it does change over time. There are many analogies that help to explain this change.
The important thing is that you don’t put pressure on yourself to stop grieving. Equally, you needn’t berate yourself if the worst of your grief passes quicker than you expected.
Everyone is different. The most important thing is that you allow yourself to mourn your pet. You love them and they were your family – it’s natural to grieve their absence.
10. DO personalise how you memorialise your pet
Your pet had their own unique and wonderful personality that makes them wholly irreplaceable. A great way to honour this is to choose a memorial that has personal meaning and that reflects your pet’s character. There is now an incredible range of urns and caskets for pet’s ashes. You can also choose beautiful plaques, stones, grave markers and headstones. Alternatively, some people memorialise their pet with cremation jewellery, paintings, stuffed toys that look like their pet, plants and much more.
Pet memorial don’ts
1. DON’T assume your pet will have to go to the vet for euthanasia
If the circumstances allow, it may be possible for your pet to spend their final moments in the comfort and security of their own home.
Many vets are willing to perform euthanasia in an animal’s home environment. This is especially desirable if you have an anxious pet who hates visiting the vet. If is this is something you might want to happen when the time comes, it’s worth asking your vet about it in advance.
2. DON’T feel pressure to memorialise your pet in a certain way
It is entirely up to you how you memorialise your pet, even if your friends or family have uninvited opinions about the costs or your choice. Sadly, people will often say things like, “I can’t believe you’re going to pay for a cat/rabbit/guinea pig to be cremated! Why not bury him/her in the garden?” You don’t need to justify what gives you comfort.
3. DON’T bury your companion in a shallow grave
As we’ve mentioned above, it is legal to bury a deceased pet in your garden if you own the property and it’s the home your pet lived in.
The only exception is if your pet’s remains are deemed to be ‘hazardous to human health’. However, it’s fairly unclear what would be considered hazardous so if your vet does refuse to release your pet’s remains, you should ask for a written explanation before making any decisions.
Once you’ve found a suitable plot in your garden, you should aim to have at least two feet of earth above your pet in heavy soil and three feet in light soil. It’s also recommended that you cover your pet’s plot with a plant pot or some other item that can’t be easily moved. This will save you from the distress of seeing your pet’s plot disturbed by local wildlife.
4. DON’T use things like Chinese lanterns or balloons to mark your pet’s passing
As stunning and poignant as a sky full of Chinese lanterns or balloons can look, they pose a significant threat to wildlife, both on land and in the sea. An eco-friendly alternative would be to blow bubbles into the air or to release a handful of leaves on the breeze, symbolising your pet’s passing from this life.
5. DON’T feel that you’re alone in your grief
Forty per cent of households in the UK include a least one pet. That’s 40% of homes where the inhabitants will face pet loss at some point in the future if they haven’t experienced it already. You are not alone in your grief.
More than 42,000 people have connected with The Ralph Site’s Facebook page and more than 4,000 are members of the private Facebook group. This is a beautiful community of people who understand just how devastating it is to lose a pet.
Although no-one can ever step into the unique individuals and circumstances of your loss, they can sympathise and empathise with your feelings. Please reach out if you need support.
You are not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support