The practicalities you need to know when your pet passes on

This article explains the options you have available when having to decide what happens to the remains of a deceased pet. While this information is helpful, please read it at your own discretion if you are a sensitive reader.

Sally Roberts recalls a tragic event that claimed the life of their neighbour’s eight-month-old Jack Russell Terrier several years ago. “The family was on holiday and one of the staff left the gate open and the dog got out,” Sally recounts. “Sadly, the pup was hit by a car and died instantly. My own kids were distraught as they had played with Jamie many times. It was late at night and my husband and I weren’t sure what the options were and where we should place the body until morning.”

When a pet passes away

Losing a beloved pet is a tragic experience for all family members. Whether the pet died due to old age, ill health or tragically, the sense of loss and despair is the same. Coping with the pet’s passing and coming to terms with your grief starts with ensuring that your pet’s body is treated with the same dignity he enjoyed during his life.

If your pet dies at home, either of old age or a known illness, you can arrange for a deceased pet care service to collect the body at your home. Your vet may also be able to assist with storage of the body and can arrange for collection from the vet’s office through the crematorium company they use. For this option, you will need to transport your pet’s body to the vet. If you are too distraught to drive, rather ask a friend or family member to assist.

If your pet passes after hours, Dr Amanda Haechler of Harmelia Animal Clinic suggests placing the body inside a plastic bag or a box lined with plastic and placing it in a cool area, possibly in a garage or bathroom, until morning.

If your pet dies at the vet or after euthanasia, the body will be placed in a cold storage facility at the vet’s consulting rooms until the pet service company comes through to collect.

“An autopsy should be considered if there is a question as to why the pet died, either a sudden death or if you suspect something more sinister, and you would like answers,” says Dr Haechler. “Some vets will conduct a basic autopsy at their facilities, but in most cases the body will be sent to Onderstepoort where a cause of death will be determined after extensive investigation and tests.”

If your pet has died due to suspected malicious poisoning, you can open a case with the South African Police Service (SAPS), but an autopsy will be required and you will need to cover those costs.

Aftercare options

Making a decision on what to do with your pet’s remains can be a challenging decision during a very emotional time. In most cases the body can only be stored for a few days, so you will need to make a decision fairly quickly. While we don’t like to think about our pets passing on, if your pet is ill or reaching old age, you should consider aftercare options.

“This is very personal,” says Dr Haechler. “Never feel pressured as to what you should and should not do. What is right for one pet owner may not be right for another. You will also need to base your decision on available finances and how you are able to cope with the loss.”

  1. Home burial

This was common practice in the past as families kept their pets close by, burying them in a special place in the garden. In terms of the law, the practice may now be illegal in your town or city according to municipal by-laws.

The City of Cape Town’s Alderman JP Smith says that in terms of the City of Cape Town’s bylaws there is nothing preventing a person from burying their pet in their backyard. “However, the City advises that holes used for such burials are deep enough to prevent other animals from accessing the carcass, and also to minimise the risk of malodours to the household as well as surrounding properties,” he states.

If you want to consider this option, you must check with your local municipality. Should it be illegal in your district, doing so may result in a fine. If you do bury your pet at home, procedures for proper burial must be followed to ensure the safety of the burial site. It should not be considered if your pet died of an infectious illness or poisoning.

  1. Cremation

Pet owners have two options for cremation. “A communal cremation means that the pet is cremated with other pets and the ashes cannot be returned,” explains Gail Reith of Legacy Pet Crematorium and Memorial Park in Kya Sand in Randburg. “It is less expensive, but it is important to know that we are not allowed, by law, to keep the ashes on our property. The ashes are taken to a designated site which is exclusively for ‘neutral waste’.”

Individual cremation is more expensive but ensures that your pet’s body is cremated in a separate compartment and the ashes can be returned to you. You can select how you would like the ashes returned – either in an urn, small casket or personalised box. Ashes can be interred in a pet remembrance wall, kept in your home or scattered in a place of your choice.

Cremation can be arranged privately through the company or through your vet. You can also choose to wait at the crematorium while your pet is cremated. If you use the service through your vet, you will receive the ashes back in about a week. For some pet owners this can be a very traumatic experience. If you are feeling very emotional and unable to cope, ask a friend or family member to go with you to collect your pet’s ashes.

  1. Pet cemetery burial

Pet cemeteries are a relatively new concept in South Africa and facilities are only available at the Legacy Memorial Park and the Fourways Memorial Park in Gauteng. The pet’s body or cremated ashes are buried in a dedicated plot and a granite memorial stone may be erected for remembrance. Should you choose this option, you will need to order a small casket before the burial. You will also be allowed to hold a remembrance service at the cemetery before your pet is laid to rest.

 Saying goodbye

Everyone in the family can benefit in their grief by taking time to say a special goodbye to the pet (see the box Coping with grief). You may wish to incorporate this memorial with the scattering or placing of the pet’s ashes, or you can do so as a separate memorial.

Consider a portrait or enlarged photograph of your pet to hang in your home, a plaque for your garden or a page in the family scrapbook. Ask your child to write a story or poem about the pet and place it inside a box with his collar and leash. Keep this in a special place. Consider planting a tree in your garden as a remembrance of your pet. You can sprinkle the pet’s ashes around the tree.

Some companies also offer a number of different ways of remembering your pet. Ashes can be placed inside a cavity in a memorial rock for your garden or encased in a glass keepsake. Legacy Pet Crematorium partners with LifeGem, an American company that turns the ashes into an authentic diamond which can be used in a unique piece of jewellery.

Animaltalk also offers you the opportunity to say goodbye to your pet on a special place – the Animaltalk Rainbow Bridge. Here you can post a picture of your pet, write down your most special memories and even light a digital candle for your pet.

Good to know

If your pet dies at home, remember to call your vet to let them know. Your pet’s file on their computer system will need to be updated so that you do not receive vaccination and check-up reminders on your cellphone. This can be particularly traumatic for pet owners – possibly arriving at a time when you are just coming to terms with the loss.

Coping with grief

When a beloved pet dies, we experience the same stages of grief as we suffer with a human loss. “People tend to mourn their pets more readily and openly, as the relationship is uncomplicated,” explains Colleen Johnson, a counselling and educational psychologist from Edenvale. “The love between a pet and owner is often unconditional and plays a very important role, especially in children and the elderly. Pets are often constant companions who serve the role as ‘quiet confidante’, friend and non-judging supporter. They often occupy more personal space than humans do.”

Don’t be afraid to show your grief over the lost animal, or try to disguise or lie about the event to your child. Children need to learn about the natural process of life and death. “It’s okay to cry in front of your child and to show them that the loss is significant,” says Colleen. “Reading age-appropriate stories about loss and dying could also help your child cope with his or her grief.”

Stages of grief

Denial A first reaction is often one of shock and numbness – especially if the death was sudden and unexpected.

Anger You may feel angry towards the person who caused the death, a higher power, your vet for not being able to save the pet, yourself or even your pet for leaving you. Talking about your feelings can help you move through this phase.

Bargaining You may want to ‘turn back the clock’ to a time when your pet was well, promising to do things differently.

Depression You feel very low, experience periods of extreme sadness and may withdraw from doing things you once enjoyed. You possibly feel that you could never have another pet. This is often the longest phase of the process. If you aren’t coping after a month or so, consider counselling for your loss.

Acceptance and healing Over a period of time, you come to terms with the loss. You remember your pet with fond memories. You may even consider getting a new pet in the future.