By: Dawn DuBois
Last year, researchers from the University of Hawaii’s animal science department conducted a study to determine the level of grief and stress that a pet owner experiences when a pet dies. Among 106 pet owners interviewed from a veterinary clinic, 52 percent had lost one or more pets from natural causes, while 37 percent had lost a pet to euthanasia. Although many pet owners experience significant grief when a pet dies, about 30 percent reported grief that lasted six months or longer. Severe grief that resulted in major life disruption was less common but was estimated as high as 12 percent of those studied. It’s not only animal researchers who are taking note of the grief that occurs when a pet dies.
The journal Perspectives in Psychiatric Care noted that the bond between people and their pets can affect both physical and mental health, and that the grief reaction that occurs after a pet’s death is “in many ways comparable to that of the loss of a family member.” “Unfortunately, the loss of a pet is not recognized consistently by friends, acquaintances or colleagues as a significant or authentic occasion for bereavement,” the journal authors wrote.
When my cat of 16 years, Henley died I got mixed reactions. Some people would shrug and say, “Well, I’m a dog person.” Others would tell me it was just her time. Yet very few people seemed to understand just how devastated I was, and still am. She was my best friend, my companion, and had been with me through some of the roughest times of my life.
Our pets live relatively short lives. For many of us who love our pets, their death can affect some of us even more than the death of a relative or friend. The death of a pet leaves few people totally untouched. A pet may come to symbolize many things to each of us. It may represent a child, perhaps a child yet to be conceived or the innocent child in us all. It may reflect the ideal mate or parent, ever faithful, patient and welcoming, loving us unconditionally. It is a playmate and a sibling. It is a reflection of ourselves, embodying negative and positive qualities we recognize or lack in ourselves. The same pet may be all of these, alternating between roles on any given day or for each member of the family. When a pet dies, we expect that our pain will be acknowledged, even if it’s not shared by our relatives, friends and colleagues. Though the bond between you and your pet is as valuable as any of your human relationships. The importance of its loss may not be appreciated by other people. The process of grieving for a pet is no different than mourning the death of a human being. The difference lies in the value that is placed on your pet by your family and by society as a whole.
Your grief may be compounded by lack of response from a friend or family member. Realize that you do not need anyone else’s approval to mourn the loss of your pet, nor must you justify your feelings to anyone. Do not fault anyone who cannot appreciate the depth of your grief for a pet. The joy found in the companionship of a pet is a blessing not given to everyone. Seek validation for your pain from people who will understand you. Speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary technician, groomer or another pet owner. Ask for a referral to pet grief support groups or veterinary bereavement counselors in your area. The death of a pet can revive painful memories and unresolved conflicts from the past that amplify your current emotional upheaval. Seek comfort in the support of professional counselors or clergy. This is an opportunity for emotional growth. Your life was and will continue to be brighter because of the time that you shared with your pet. This is the best testament to the value of your pet’s existence.
When Henley passed away, I was in a transition and didn’t know exactly where I was going to live. I could not stand the thought of burying her and moving from her grave, so I had her cremated. Cremation for pets is becoming a more recognized form of dealing with disposal, and many people are doing it.
Because we form special bonds with our companions, it is only natural that many of us wish to follow the human model of burial or cremation to respect and remember our pet’s devotion. An option such as burying your pet at home sometimes necessitates meeting stringent health department regulations, and you may find that pet cemeteries are either hard to find or costly. Today many Pet Owners opt for cremation since it both provides a way to keep your pet near you and allows you to bury or scatter some of your pet’s ashes in your yard or a favorite place your pet enjoyed. With our mobile society many families choose pet cremation in order to keep their pet’s memorial with them when they move. You may be surprised to know that cremation is available for pets of all sizes, from birds to horses.
Considering the alternatives to pet cremation: Upon the passing of your pet, you will be making some decisions about what will happen next. Thankfully the decisions to be made are fairly simple when you know the available choices. Typically you will have three alternatives: cremation of your pet with the cremains returned to you; cremation of your pet without receiving the cremains; or, if you prefer, burial of your pet in a pet cemetery.
Understanding the pet cremation process: If your pet’s passing involves your Veterinarian, he or she will usually have a relationship with a crematorium, a regulated establishment which contains a special kind of furnace called a cremation chamber, used exclusively for pet cremation. The process of pet cremation uses extreme heat (usually 1500 – 1600 degrees Fahrenheit) and evaporation in the cremation chamber to reduce the body to its basic elements which are referred to as cremated remains, or cremains. Also commonly called ashes, the cremains are in fact bone fragments which are then reduced in size to a sand-like state.
Selecting a type of cremation: For your pet it is important to know that there are a range of options that exist within pet cremation, and therefore you will want to be sure to confirm the type of cremation you desire for your pet with your Veterinarian or crematory, after considering which one of the following four choices best aligns with your wishes:
Private Cremation: With this selection, your pet alone is placed in the cremation chamber. Upon completion of the cremation, your pet’s cremains are removed from the chamber, processed and returned to you for transferring to the pet urn of your choice.
Viewing Cremation: Similar to a Private Cremation, but The Pet Owner, friends and family are permitted to be present during the cremation in a viewing room. This option is not available at all crematories.
Individual Cremation: During the cremation, your pet shares space in the cremation chamber with other pets, however they are separated so that you will be able to receive your pet’s cremains.
Communal (Mass) Cremation: With this alternative your pet is cremated along with a number of other pets, and the cremains are not able to be separated. No urn is returned to the Pet Owner. It is common practice for these cremains to be disposed of commercially. Frequently Pet Owners who are selecting a private pet cremation ask how they can be certain that their pet’s remains are kept separate from the remains of other pets. If this is a concern for you, ask your Veterinarian for the name and phone number of the crematory he/she has a relationship with, and call the crematory management to discuss your concerns. It is assuring to know that all responsible pet crematories have thorough operating policies and procedures in order to provide the highest level of service and reduce possibility of human error.
Transferring your pet’s ashes: Your pet’s ashes are typically placed in a sealed plastic bag which is then placed in a temporary pet urn, usually a tin, plastic or cardboard box, and returned to the Pet Owner or Veterinarian. The ashes are bagged to prevent accidental loss should the pet urn be dropped or damaged, as well as to prevent damage from moisture. It is preferable to transfer the entire plastic bag of cremains into a permanent pet urn. Since many Pet Owners find it emotionally difficult to transfer the ashes by themselves, you may prefer to have the Veterinarian, a relative, or a friend transfer the ashes to your pet’s memorial urn.
Determining the right pet memorial urn: Just as we pay tribute to a dear departed loved one, Pet Owners feel they should do something special to memorialize a much-loved pet. A popular choice of pet memorial is a decorative wooden box which serves as an urn to hold your pet’s ashes, displaying a name plate and treasured photo. Larger pet urns can additionally hold remembrances such as a collar, tag or ball. To determine the size of the urn for your pet, you’ll want to know the weight of your pet and the capacity of the selected pet urn in cubic inches. For example, if your pet weighed 50 pounds under normal healthy conditions, you would select an urn with an interior area of at least 50 cubic inches.
Letting your Veterinarian assist you: With the assistance of your Veterinarian throughout the management of your pet’s final care, you’ll find the required choices much easier to make, feeling more confident that events will proceed smoothly. Your Veterinarian’s expertise plus a clear understanding of the pet cremation process will give you a welcome degree of control in handling the careful steps along the path of honoring your faithful friend’s passing. If you lose a loved one, be it person, or animal, allow yourself time to grieve.