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Yeah, I know it’s a weird question. But it’s clearly on the minds of many of my clients. One couldn’t help wiping her eyes last Saturday morning as she asked about the unthinkable: “I’m so scared I’ll wake up and find her dead and won’t know what to do or where to go because your office is closed.”

Wow. That’s a lot of stress to carry around. Which is why I couldn’t help thinking hers was a great question to discuss here. Because everyone needs to be prepared for this possibility, of course, but also because all pet owners should understand all their options when it comes to death services in general.

The trouble with knowing what to do when your dog or cat dies is that pet death products and services might work a little differently depending on your community’s geography and business climate. Nonetheless, there are some basics that remain relatively constant. Here are some bullet points:

  • Veterinarians are typically the “middlemen” for death services. Which means we don’t actually take care of your pets’ remains after we wrap them in a cadaver bag and place them into the freezer every hospital keeps for short-term storage.
  • While some of us (especially in rural areas) might actually own an incinerator so we can cremate our own patients, this practice has become increasingly uncommon over time. As pets have assumed the role of family members, sophisticated services have stepped up to help professionalize the pet death industry.
  • We contract with these companies to come pick up the bodies temporarily housed in our freezers. We trust in the professionalism they espouse and, in many cases, have had ample opportunity to visit the facilities and select their services from a number of competing alternatives.
  • These companies will often offer everything from private cremation services and landscaped cemetery burials to in-casket viewings and the opportunity to be personally present at the moment of cremation. They also offer a wide range of ancillary products from velvet-lined caskets and carved headstones to personalized bronze urns and funeral service announcements.
  • Veterinary hospitals typically charge a significant markup for contracting with these service providers. In some cases, double and triple markups are not unusual. But it all depends on the hospital’s culture and cost structure.
  • I know of some hospitals where the management would never consider marking up death services for their regular clients except to cover their basic costs. I know others where their investment in end-of-life amenities (euthanasia suites, dedicated staff, special staff training, etc.) justifies additional expenses. And still others who charge three times the service’s cost because they know they can.
  • In many cases, these service providers are happy to deal with you directly. Indeed, issues like funeral planning and burials require direct interaction between owners and pet death services. But even for the basics — communal cremation, for example — owners can call and have the company come pick up their pets at their homes, thus cutting out the middleman entirely.
  • Some of these services also offer on-call employees to help you in your hour of need. On a Saturday night, for instance.

OK, so to be clear: I’m not suggesting you let your dog or cat die at home (when euthanasia would be more appropriate) so you can save yourself the markup from your may-be-gouging-you veterinary hospital. That would be absurd. Another point of clarity: Most veterinary hospitals are fair players when it comes to pricing services and informing you of your options. Trouble is, it's just so delicate a subject that sometimes we neglect to explain things — especially as your pet nears the end of his life and the issue is increasingly fraught with anticipatory grief.

The whole point of this post is to tune you into the reality of pet death services so that …

1. You know you have choices in determining what to do when your pet dies. Because you deserve choices.

2. You understand that you have the power and the right to exercise these choices in a way that may require circumventing your veterinarian — if that’s what’s best for you and your family during this incredibly sensitive time.

Which is why I strongly recommend that every pet owner ask their veterinarian the same question last Saturday’s client raised. For her teary-eyed efforts, she got herself a brochure with answers to all her questions. Which I assume has got to be a serious stress-buster.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Art of the day: "cemetery cats" by donnievendetta

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