In late 2022, around 1am one night, I received a call from my partner in my hotel room in Colorado. It was a call I hoped I never got: my sweet 15-year-old boston terrier Ollie had a seizure and couldn’t walk or breathe. They were on their way to the emergency vet, where they would probably put him to sleep. The next two hours were excruciating. I waited for my partner to call back with an update, and then watched my dog get euthanized on FaceTime as he howled in pain.
My partner handled everything from getting Ollie to the vet for starters, to arranging for the delivery of his ashes and I am forever grateful to him for that. Ollie was my first dog that was all mine; I got him when he was eight weeks old. His death made me realize that not only did he have no idea what to do, but also that my emotional state would have made it almost impossible to handle alone. If you’re also dealing with the sudden death of a pet, here’s what I learned needs to happen.
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call your vet
First things first: get well, and then call your vet or your local emergency clinic if you’re out of town, your vet’s office is closed, or you don’t have a regular vet. If you are alone, you can also ask a friend or family member to come support you. The vet will guide you through the next steps, and you’ll be grateful for the help, because the next task is managing your dog’s body.
If you can’t transport your pet to the vet immediately upon death, “store the body properly in a sealed bag in a freezer, as its body will begin to decay and decompose almost immediately,” says Rendy Schuchat, the dog’s owner. training company Anything is Pawzible. Take the body to the vet as soon as possible afterward. Most vets will let you keep your pet there for a couple of days until you decide what you want to do for aftercare, like cremation or burial, but always ask if that’s a service they offer, just in case.
Decide on burial, cremation or other
What you do with your pet’s body after it dies really depends on your personal preferences and local regulations. Ollie was cremated; he made more sense because he was already at an animal hospital where they could take care of him. He was cremated there and the ashes returned to us a few days later. In my town, it’s also illegal to bury a pet in your yard if you don’t own the property, and I rent my house. Some municipalities ban pet burials altogether, so cremation might be your only option, although you may be able to store the ashes in a cemetery.
Dr. Sabrina Kong DVM, a dog trainer and veterinary consultant at WeLoveDoodles.com, suggests asking your vet what services are available to you. They will have as much information on trusted service providers nearby, and are likely already associated with some. She can also ask other people whose pets have recently passed away for advice on how they handled it.
Depending on local regulations, your options will include a backyard burial, burial in a pet cemetery, private cremation (just your pet and we return the ashes to you), or community cremation (a group of pets cremated together and you not recover the ashes). If none of that suits you, there are other options. There is aquamation, a more environmentally friendly version of standard cremation that uses an alkaline solution of heated water to decompose the body. You can create an Eternal Reef, in which pet ashes are mixed with human ashes from the same family along with concrete to make an artificial coral reef or a living urn, which allows families to mix ashes with tree or flower seeds and plant them.
Keep in mind that costs vary depending on the type of service. A burial in your yard is free, communal cremation is the next most affordable option, burial in a cemetery is more expensive, and so on. Always ask for the price when making your decision, to avoid surprises when the bill arrives.
Dealing with belongings and services.
Here’s a piece of advice I learned when Ollie died: have the person who can best handle it (which may be a friend) come by your house and pick up your dog’s belongings. They should all be put in one place for you to review later, when you are emotionally ready to tackle the task. That way, he won’t stumble upon a stash of toys his dog hid and fall into another wave of depression. Because that’s how pain will come: in waves.
“The immediate loss of your presence can be overwhelming at first,” says Schuchat. “Missing the daily activities you did with your dog will leave gaps in his routine, so do your best to create new routines when you’re ready.”
You’ll also want to contact groomers, veterinarians, or doggy day care centers to let them know of your pup’s death. No one wants to get a duty reminder when they’re still grieving.
Lean on support networks
Most importantly, don’t underestimate how long it will take you to move on. I still have moments where I break down because I think I saw Ollie out of the corner of my eye, or vividly remember something he used to do at certain times.
“Dealing with the death of a pet is just as difficult as dealing with any other loss, and you and your family need to give yourself and your family time to grieve, process, and accept the fact,” Kong says. “There is no period of time for you to recover, and you must be especially patient with the little ones, since children are not as used to death as adults.”
The National Pet Loss Hotline offers bereaved owners free consultations 24 hours a day at 1-800-946-4646.
If you find that your grief from losing your pet just won’t go away, it might be time to talk to someone about it. Don’t be afraid to see a therapist or discuss it with friends. For many people, talking about it is an essential part of healing. Schuchat also suggests looking into online support groups to connect with people in the same situation.
“Know that there are others who understand your pain and sadness,” she says. “If he can connect with someone who’s been in her shoes, he can help her through a process that unfortunately doesn’t have an end date.”
commemorate your friend
When I lost Ollie, I knew I wanted his ashes in a nice box, and the ER vet also gave me a plaster paw print medallion that I keep with his ashes. I also kept his leash, his tags and his favorite toy. My fiance and I had planned to have Ollie at our wedding this year; my sister in law had even bought us a “Best Dog” bandana for him to wear. That is also now on display with his ashes. At the wedding, we’ll have a table with a book I made out of the photos of him and his handkerchief, that way he’s still there somehow.
“Sometimes honoring your pet with a donation or memorial will help you through your grieving process,” says Schuchat. She suggests donating to an animal rescue organization in their dog’s name, turning some of their ashes into keepsake jewelry, planting a tree where they like to nap outside, or scattering their ashes in their favorite spot. However, she checks local regulations before spreading anything; it may not be legal where she lives.
Kong notes that some artists will make art out of your pet’s ashes, an option she says has grown in popularity in recent years. “The most important thing is to remember them in your heart and honor them in any way that makes you feel good about their memory,” she adds.
Don’t adopt right away
You or your loved ones may want to get another pet right away to ease the pain of losing your furry friend. Take Kong’s advice and give him some time. For now, you’ll want to put off a new pet or any other major life change; it is important to process your pain. Give him a few months, at least, until you feel at peace with his death. Don’t get another pet until you’re completely sure you can start a relationship with a new furry friend, Kong says.
“You’ll know the time is right for a new pet when you’re ready to open your heart to love again and can provide the necessary care and attention for a new furry companion in your life.”
Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, bestselling author, and editor of the Kitchen Witch Newsletter. She currently dreams of a trip around the world with her Boston terrier. She checks out her website at jenniferbillock.com.