How to prepare for the loss of a pet

It isn’t easy, but death is something every pet owner faces

My husband and I thought we were prepared for the loss of our dog. He had been sick for many years, so it shouldn’t have been a shock when it was time to let him go. But it was. We had never talked details with our vet beforehand, and we were too choked up to do so in the moment. We made the fewest heart-wrenching decisions possible and told them to just bill our credit card. We still don’t know what the cost of euthanasia and cremation will be.

No one likes to think about death. But because we usually outlive our furry family members, it’s something all pet owners have to face. It helps to know what to expect, so as end of life draws near, you’ll be (at least somewhat) prepared.

0815_petlifedeath01_rchapman_oneuseonlyDeciding when to let go
People like to say, “You’ll know when it’s time.” But emotions can cloud your judgment, and it helps to have more concrete advice. “Animals in general are very present-minded. You can’t really explain that tomorrow will be better,” says Alpharetta veterinarian Kaylin Touché, who counsels owners to pick a pet’s five favorite things. Maybe it’s playing ball or going for walks with the family or just eating breakfast. “When your pet loses two of those favorite things, it’s time to agree you’re getting close to the end. When you lose three, be prepared to call your vet, because at that point you’ve lost quality of life,” she says.

Once the difficult decision has been made, there’s still another to face: whether or not to be present for the procedure. “Many [owners] see it as a way to have closure,” says Decatur veterinarian Will Draper, who has a special euthanasia room with a private entrance at his practice. “Others prefer to say goodbye beforehand.”

PetsCalculating the cost factor
It’s unfortunate, but often money becomes an issue when making the choice for euthanasia. Perhaps your pet was in an accident and requires thousands of dollars in surgeries and care. Or you’re facing mounting bills for tests, medications, and recurring vet visits for a chronic condition.

“I never make anyone feel guilty,” says metro Atlanta veterinarian M.G. McReynolds, who performs at-home euthanasia. “I’ve heard of situations where people were strong-armed into doing some things they couldn’t afford to do.” It’s best to talk ahead of time about what you can reasonably spend, he says, so you don’t fall down the “just one more procedure” rabbit hole.

If you decide on euthanasia, it generally runs about $100 at a vet’s office (though many will waive the fee for long-time patients) or $250 at home. Some owners opt for pet insurance to help pay for unexpected medical expenses, but take a look at the fine print. Not all procedures, conditions, and drugs are covered. Draper generally suggests policies—which cost about $20/month for a dog and $15/month for a cat—only to people who have multiple pets. “Otherwise, I recommend getting a pet-only credit card or starting a savings account for potential emergencies,” he says.

Choosing a final resting place
When your pet dies, you have to choose what to do with his remains. Although it’s legal in the state of Georgia to lay your pet to rest in your own backyard, some municipalities have separate ordinances. Backyard pet burial is not authorized in the city of Atlanta, for example, but there are no ordinances against it in Alpharetta, Decatur, Roswell, or Peachtree City. Still, many people choose cremation; if you move, you’ll never have to leave your pet behind.

There are several metro Atlanta pet crematories, and many vets have a relationship with one and will offer to take care of arrangements for you. You can decide between communal cremation and private cremation, in which your pet is cremated individually and its ashes are returned to you, often in a keepsake container. Costs vary, but for a medium-sized dog, expect to pay $200 for private and $75 for communal cremation.

If your pet dies at home—naturally or as a result of euthanasia—you can choose a crematory based on cost and other features. At Paws, Whiskers & Wags crematory in Decatur, for example, owners can use private rooms to say goodbye. Deceased Pet Care, which has three metro Atlanta locations, offers cremation as well as burial at pet cemeteries in Bethlehem (Oak Rest Pet Gardens) and Douglasville (Loving Care Pet Gardens). Burial costs $500 and up. At Oak Rest, owners’ cremated remains can even be interred alongside those of their pets.

Coping with the loss
Psychologist Robin Chisolm-Seymour leads a pet loss support group at Blue Pearl/Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Sandy Springs. Her advice to grieving owners:

“It’s important to get support, whether it’s from a group (the Atlanta Humane Society has one, or you can ask your vet for a referral) or family and friends—as long as it is someone who understands what you’re feeling. That goes for kids, too. You want them to be comfortable expressing their sadness. Teenagers tend to not want to deal with things, particularly with their parents. If your teenager can’t bring himself to reveal his emotions to you, see if there’s somebody else he can talk to.

Not everyone needs a memorial service. Instead, you might make a scrapbook or photo album, or plant something in your pet’s honor, or have a piece of jewelry or keychain [made] with your pet’s name. Something you can touch. That’s one of the things we really miss—the constant touching and petting.”

Illustrations by Ryan Chapman.

This article originally appeared in our August 2015.