American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association

This article is from the July-Oct. 1993 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.

Companion Animal Loss & Pet Owner Grief: Part 2

By Marc A. Rosenberg, VMD

(Continued from Part 1)

These are excerpts from the booklet published by ALPO Pet Center, ALPO Petfoods, Inc., P.O. Box 4000, Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, 18001-4000. 1986. Permission granted to reproduce sections.


Dr. Marc Rosenberg is a private practitioner in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where he was chosen for Veterinarian of the Year for southern New Jersey in 1982. He is also a consulting member of the ALPO Veterinary Advisory Panel, Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Outside private practice, Dr. Rosenberg is most widely known for his numerous radio and television appearances. His television series, “People, Pets & Dr. Marc,” is syndicated throughout the Public Broadcasting Service television network.


After the pet’s actual death, the owner’s feelings about the animal’s ultimate disposal vary greatly. Preferences tend to be based on experiences with the death of human loved ones. Options for disposing of an animal’s body might be well-known to veterinarians, but they are probably not well-known to most pet owners. A veterinarian can therefore take the initiative to discuss all the options, whether or not the client asks for the information, thus enabling the client to make an informed choice. Resolution of the client’s grief can be aided if the pet’s disposal is in keeping with the client’s preference, if any. The clinician should not be offended, however, if the pet owner asks for assurance that the animal’s remains will not be used for purposes of experimentation.

Cemetery Burial

The pet cemetery is not a new concept, nor is there a sudden demand for its use. Man has been burying his pets in a ritualistic fashion since Egyptian times, and there are pet cemeteries in virtually every populated area of the United States and Europe.

The pet cemetery has several functions: It allows the pet owner to participate in a physical separation from the deceased animal; it provides a grieving person with the comfort of knowing the pet’s final resting place; and it provides a place of solitude for visitation. There can be great comfort derived from doing for a pet what would be done for a beloved human family member. More people would use pet cemeteries were it not for the stigma that is sometimes associated with them—that is, being considered eccentric by one’s friends and associates.

The financial cost of a pet burial can also be high, which no doubt is also a deterrent to wider use. Animal burial establishments offer options from a simple burial to a ritualistically complete funeral. The minimum burial cost is about $200, although some pet funerals can run into the thousands of dollars. Almost all pet cemeteries located in urban settings will work with the veterinary clinic, sending a representative to pick up the animal’s body. The pet owner, however, may choose to make all arrangements with the pet cemetery without using the veterinarian as a liaison.

Communal Burial

When a client feels a pet’s burial does not warrant ceremony or significant expenditure, communal burial is the most common option. Many pet cemeteries and private humane organizations offer this service to veterinarians. It is an inexpensive option and is well accepted by the majority of pet owners. Even those who opt for communal burial, however, are concerned with the treatment and ultimate disposition of the pet. It is important that they be reassured that the animal will not be “tossed on an uncovered heap”—a common fear among pet owners.

When a client chooses a communal burial, an explanation by the veterinarian often helps answer questions about what exactly will happen to the pet. An honest, straightforward response that the animal will simply be put into the ground is called for. The owner can be assured that a pet’s dignity is in no way affected by communal burial. When the burial decision is left to the veterinary clinician, communal burial is one of the most common choices.

Communal Cremation

Partly because of environmental considerations or lack of affordable land, pet burial is not an option in many areas of the country. Communal cremation then becomes a viable alternative. Crematoriums are available for purchase by veterinary clinics, though environmental restrictions may limit their use. Many humane organizations and pet cemeteries also offer cremation services. Once again, the client should understand that this procedure is not individual but en masse. The fee is relatively low (less than $100), and it is an option for clients who have an aversion to the burial concept. When questioned, such pet owners often respond that they would prefer to be cremated upon their own death.

Individual Cremation

Individual cremation is increasingly popular. Many clients choose to bury the pet’s ashes at home or scatter them in a ceremonial fashion. The cost of individual cremation ($75 to $250), is higher than that of communal disposal, yet it is affordable to many pet owners and, for some, seems to have an aesthetic appeal preferable to burial.

Home Burial

It is not unusual for a pet owner to bury the pet somewhere on his or her own property. Those who live in rural areas or in communities that allow home pet burials often take advantage of this option. If a client asks about this possibility, there is no reason it should not be considered. These pet owners should be counseled that the animal’s remains must be placed in a thick liner bag and then encased in a wooden coffin-like container or other tight-fitting receptacle. This precaution diminishes the likelihood of animals, attracted by the scent, digging at the grave site.

Some home burials are coupled with a personalized service. This commonly occurs when there are young children in the family.


Society is gradually increasing in its understanding of pet owner bereavement.

One way to soften the impact of a pet’s death is for the owner to make a donation to a worthy cause. Many veterinarians will ask that a donation in the memory of the deceased pet be sent to a humane organization or a scholarship fund. A client perceives this gesture as a way that his pet can continue to contribute, in a positive way, to the world it has left behind.


The imminence of a companion pet’s death triggers early grief responses whether the death occurs naturally or is the result of the veterinarian’s purposeful intervention. Being familiar with the varying stages of bereavement will allow the clinician to tailor the euthanasia procedure accordingly. An owner’s response can vary greatly at the moment of euthanasia, depending on a combination of factors. The degree of the owner’s attachment to the pet, previous grief responses in similar situations, and the bereavement stage he or she is experiencing at the time can all affect the response.

Since it is impossible for the clinician to disassociate from the experience, euthanasia is difficult for him or her as well. In many cases, he or she has known the pet for many years and has fought long and hard to save its life. Adding to this burden is the fact that the pet owner’s demonstration of grief is often overt and disconcerting. When the clinician evaluates the situation in advance and takes time to understand the pet owner’s needs, a potentially uncomfortable procedure can be handled in a positive fashion.

The Procedure

When a pet is euthanized there are two primary goals: it should be a humane procedure and the pet owner should feel as comfortable as circumstances permit. Achieving both these objectives is difficult if a veterinarian has hard-and-fast rules concerning euthanasia.

The decision to euthanize a pet is often more readily accepted if the pet owner can deal with the procedure in a manner that best fits his personality and emotional needs. When a pet owner comes to the clinic, the clinician should take a few minutes to discuss the procedure and the role the owner wishes to play.

When The Pet Owner Chooses To Stay

Some pet owners choose to be with their pets at the time they are “put to sleep,” feeling they can comfort the animal in its final moments. Other people feel they are abandoning the animal if they are not present at the time of death.

By the same token, some clinicians are uncomfortable when the owner chooses to stay because of the possibility of the client’s displaying a strong emotional response. A client may faint, for instance, forcing the clinician to tend both to a dying patient and an incapacitated pet owner. Moreover, an uncooperative pet may make venipuncture difficult. When any or all of these factors arise, euthanasia is perceived as a struggle rather than a peaceful separation.

If a pet owner asks to be present during the procedure, taking the pet from the room for a few moments to insert an indwelling intravenous catheter often helps, reducing the risk of an imperfect puncture at a critical time. When the intravenous drug administration begins, the client may wish to stroke the animal’s head and speak gently to it. At the procedure’s conclusion, a blanket or towel can be used to cover the deceased pet. This minimizes trauma owners may experience if involuntary urination or defecation occurs.

Most clinicians concede if a client requests to spend a few moments with the deceased pet. On occasion, however, the bereaved owner may stay for an unacceptable period, upsetting the veterinary hospital routine. After a reasonable time, the veterinarian can reenter the room, gently begin to walk the client out, and suggest that he will call the next day. This allows the clinician to create a graceful, supportive avenue for separating the owner from the deceased pet, yet provides time for heightened emotions to subside.

When The Pet Owner Chooses Not To Stay

In most cases, the pet owner chooses not to be with the animal during the procedure. Some owners will ask to see the animal after the procedure has been completed, thereby allowing them to complete their physical separation. Others choose to see the deceased animal to make sure the procedure has been completed. The current emphasis on the use of animals in experimentation has made some clients skeptical that the animal has actually been euthanized. If verification of death is the reason for viewing an animal, the clinician should understand the stress of the moment. Media influence, not a lack of confidence in the clinician, may be the owner’s stimulus.

In some cases, a veterinarian may care for a pet from its first vaccinations to the time of euthanasia. The way in which the final procedure is handled can leave a greater impression on the pet owner than all the years of diligent care the animal has received. This factor alone points to the importance of investing the necessary time and effort to meet the needs of both the patient and the distressed client.

  1. Kubler-Ross, E.: On Death and Dying. London, The MacMillan Co., 1969.
  2. Katcher, A. and Rosenberg, M.A.: Personal interviews with bereaved pet owners, 1979.
  3. Quackenbush, J.E. and Glickman, L.: Helping people adjust to the death of a pet. Health Soc. Work. 9, 42-48, 1984.
  4. Keddie, K.M.: Pathological mourning after the death of a pet. Br. J. Psychiatry. 131, 21-25, 1977.
  5. Katcher, A. and Rosenberg, M.A.: Compend, Contin. Educ. Pract. Vet. 12, 889, 1979.
  6. Holcomb, R.: Psychological dimensions of pet loss, presented at The Delta Society conference on the interaction of people, animals, and the environment; Oct. 15-16, 1984; College Station, Texas.
  7. Magitti, P.: Pet bereavement counselors, helping to cope. Cats Magazine. 42, 12-15, 1985.

ED. NOTE: Other sources are The Pet Loss Support Hotline at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine (916) 752-4200, Monday through Friday, 6:30 P.M.–9:30 P.M. Pacific Time; summer hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 6:30 P.M.–9:30 P.M. Pacific Time. They also put out a little pamphlet that also has a list of suggested reading material. You can write to: The Center for Animals in Society, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA 95616. The book, Forever Friends: Resolving Grief After The Loss Of A Beloved Animal, by Joan Coleman, has topics on stages of grief, children and pet loss, older adults and pet loss, sudden loss, pre-grieving and euthanasia, grief/loss and trauma exercises, memorializing your pet, and safe place exercises. The soft cover book or four cassette audio album is available from J.C. Tara Enterprises, Inc., 3230 E. Flamingo Road, Ste. 276, Las Vegas, NV 89121 or phone 1-800-438-8813. *

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March 9, 2014