When my veterinarian told me that Daphne most likely had cancer, I was stunned. Although I knew something was amiss with my 15-year-old beagle’s health, I wasn’t ready to think about life without my trusty companion.
Daphne had floppy ears and petite paws; she got me through the post-graduate school blues, more apartment moves than I can count, and a handful of relationships. It was her cold snoot on my leg that served as a calming presence when she would cuddle up under blankets with me at night.
Although Daphne helped me through many “adult firsts,” I never assumed she would also become my first client as a death doula. But there she was, looking at me with her soulful, tired eyes, telling me in her way that it was her time to go, and she trusted me with the rest.
In this piece, I explore the details of planning your pet’s euthanasia, transporting a deceased pet, in-home body care, and body aftercare options. Although these topics may seem daunting, you’ll discover many common worries concerning handling a pet after they have passed stem from the unknown.
Even though you can’t plan for every in-home pet funeral mishap, you’ll find the topic easier to digest once the process is demystified.
How to Care for a Deceased Pet at Home
Preparing for a pet’s death
We’d all love for our critters, at the end of their lives, to pass in their sleep, but this is rarely the case. Typically, we humans have to decide when it’s time for our pets to die. Animals can live with uncomfortable, painful ailments for a long time. Although determining when it’s “time” for a pet to die is one of the hardest decisions to make, it’s ultimately the kindest gift we can give an ailing pet.
The first step in this process involves consulting a veterinarian. Often, a vet will have resources to help a pet owner decide whether or not it’s time for euthanasia. Although this answer is different for everyone, things such as a dramatic loss of appetite, inability to walk, uncontrolled urination or defecation, and panting or prolonged trouble breathing can help guide pet owners towards a decision.
When considering your pet’s final day, it’s a good idea to plan when and how the euthanasia will occur. Figuring out the logistics of this appointment will help you prepare for how you’ll handle your animal’s body after they’ve passed. Respected at-home pet euthanasia service, Lap of Love, have a full list of things to consider when planning for a pet’s final day.
Many people choose to have their pet pass at home. If you would prefer euthanasia to happen in your house, consult with your veterinarian sooner rather than later. This way, you can ask for suggestions if your vet is unwilling to come to your residence.
Thankfully, there are mobile vets (such as Lap of Love and other private practices) that specialize in in-home euthanasia. If your area doesn’t have a mobile service and you don’t have a regular vet, you can typically obtain euthanasia services at emergency vets or local animal shelters.
If your pet dies at a vet’s office, you can request to take your animal home. If there are laws concerning animal burial on city land, your vet will tell you about your legal options. For example, when Daphne died, I had recently moved to a new city and didn’t have a regular vet. I ended up having to take her to a local shelter for euthanasia. I was told at the time of her death about burial laws in the city but assured the vet I only planned to take her body home for a funeral and had arranged to self-transport her to a cremation facility afterwards.
If you want to keep your animal’s body post-mortem, talk with your vet ahead of time and have a plan for your pet’s body.
Transporting a body home is relatively simple. I suggest bringing a few large trash bags to line your car seat or trunk. Then, lay a few urination pads and large towels on the trash bags. Finally, bring a blanket to cover your pet’s body.
You may want to have a box or large plastic container handy for structural support. I transported my pets in their beds, but they were small (Daphne was about 20 pounds, and my hospice foster cats were under 5 pounds). If your pet is large, have a friend or family member come with you so you can easily move the body. Deadweight is astonishingly heavy, so it’s never a bad idea to have backup.
How a dead animal feels
I often found myself worrying about how Daphne would feel and look after she died.
At first, dead animals feel similar to sleeping animals. After a half-hour or so, their body will begin to cool, and rigor mortis will set in. If your pet has been deceased for several hours, and you’d like to change their positioning, you can gently massage their joints and muscles to loosen their body. I’ve found that most animal bodies are relatively easy to reposition after death, considering most do die in the resting position. If you need to tuck a pet’s paw or leg into a restful position, you can use sheets or gauze as ties.
Caring for a dead pet is not traumatic if you plan and prepare yourself for the experience.
Unlike human bodies, in my experience, animal jaws do tend to remain mostly shut after passing. If your pet’s mouth does open, it may look like they are panting. Gently massage the pet’s jaw to loosen it, or position it down into a blanket if you’d prefer not to see your animal’s open mouth. And take note that you may have to reposition an animal’s tongue by gently moving it back in their mouth. The tongue will remain pliable and is easy to move.
Thankfully, caring for a dead pet is not traumatic if you plan and prepare yourself for the experience.
What to expect when handling a dead pet
There are a few things to be aware of when caring for a dead body.
Don’t be surprised if you are unable to shut your pet’s eyes completely. In my experience, eyes will close, but not entirely. If you think seeing your pet’s eyes partially open will bother you, I recommend angling your pet’s head down into a blanket or bed to give them a more restful appearance.
When positioning a body, make liberal use of cloth or disposable urine pads and thick towels. After death, a body may expel solid and liquid waste, so be prepared to remove the waste soon after death. You may need to change pads; this will depend on how long you intend to display your pet’s body. I also recommend placing a trash bag or tarp under the layer of towels and pads to ensure that if there is liquid leakage, your home doesn’t sustain any permanent damage.
Another fluid to be aware of is blood. Blood can sometimes leak from a deceased animal’s nose or mouth. A simple wipe with a wet cloth can take care of this type of discharge quickly.
Most pets can sit for quite a few hours before they begin to emit an odor; just make sure to check for waste and other post-mortem fluids regularly and to keep your pet’s body out of direct sunlight. Position ice under the bottom layer of plastic that your pet is resting on if you plan to keep them at home for more than 24 hours. Ice will keep the body cool and slow decomposition.
I found great peace knowing I was actively petting and caring for my companion one last time.
Although I’ve used large bags of commercial ice in the summer to keep an animal’s body cold, you also can use small ice packs for a more aesthetic look and a tighter body fit. If you’re looking for ice pack options, Peaceful Passage at Home has a post to reference. I suggest buying ice packs ahead of time, so they are frozen before your pet passes.
You can use your favorite essential oils that are diluted with water to wipe down a pet’s body before their final placement (two to five drops of oil in a small glass container or spray bottle works well). This process is cathartic, and I found great peace knowing I was actively petting and caring for my companion one last time.
Finally, it’s helpful to adorn a pet’s body with the things they enjoyed in life. For example, I placed Daphne in her favorite bed, atop a layer of plastic and towels. To help her appear cozy, I covered her body with the blanket she liked and I positioned her nose down to mimic how she slept.
Body disposal options
Most vet offices have contracts with pet cremation services and can store an animal’s body after death until cremation transport arrives. However, the company your vet has partnered with may not be the most affordable option. If you are on a budget, I’d suggest calling cremation services in your area for pricing. I’ve had three of my pets cremated. Each animal was small, so the price was never more than approximately $120 for individual cremation. The smallest pet, a 2-pound kitten, cost me approximately $50. If you don’t want your animal’s ashes back and are OK with them being cremated with other bodies, group animal cremation is typically the most affordable option.
Although most cremation and pet burial services will pick up your animal’s body from your home for a small fee, you can easily transport pets yourself (as discussed previously). I’ve always found the experience of driving my pets to the cremation facility cathartic. The drive time allowed me to have one final conversation with my pet before their body made its final transformation.
Burial plots in a pet cemetery have similar pricing as cremation. A small-pet burial is less expensive than a large pet burial. Other services, such as aquamation (check out Resting Waters to learn more about this body aftercare option), taxidermy, and skeletal articulation, are also available in some cities.
Finally, many people choose to keep mementos of their deceased pets. There are several options, from clay or ink paw prints to urns and cremation necklaces that can allow you to express your love for your departed critter. Other options that don’t utilize your departed loved one’s remains exist, too, such as memorial blankets.
Before I end this piece, I want to provide you with a “pet end-of-life plan” check-list to consult.
If you’re considering keeping your deceased pet for an in-home funeral, consult this final checklist to prepare:
Pet End-of-Life Checklist and Pet Memorial Checklist:
- Talk to a vet about your pet’s health
- Decide when and where euthanasia will happen
- Consider body disposal options
- Decide if you’ll have an at-home funeral
- At-home funeral preparation
- Consider transportation
- Consider the types of memorials you’d like to have of your pet
The gifts associated with caring for a pet’s deceased body are unconventional. While it will undoubtedly be a difficult time, the process—cleaning your pet’s fur, washing their ears with oil, and holding a ceremony—can help you process your grief.
If you choose to host an in-home funeral for your pet, remember that the process may be a little messy, and it won’t be perfect, but honestly, that’s what having a pet is all about.