From Dust to Diamonds

The Evolution of Veterinary Aftercare

by Tony McReynolds

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“Aftercare is kind of a blanket term for the pet death care industry that would encompass cremation, burial, aquamation, composting.”

—KATHLEEN COONEY, DVM, MS, CHPV, CCFP

Two small wooden boxes sit on top of Cindy Young’s refrigerator in Loveland, Colorado, gathering dust. It’s a little ironic, considering what’s inside.

One contains the cremated remains of Annie, her beloved Australian shepherd, who was euthanized at age 15 five years ago. She was old and in pain, and her veterinarian could do nothing more for her. She had planned—still plans—on scattering Annie’s ashes in the Colorado foothills with the family gathered around, but somehow the family never gathered.

The other box contained the cremated remains of Waddy Schnitzel (named in honor of cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell), a dachshund she inherited from a grown daughter. Waddy was euthanized at home by a different veterinarian four years ago after he was hit by a car and critically injured. Young had no particular plans for Waddy’s remains but thought about maybe scattering them in the foothills alongside Annie’s. “Since we’ll be heading up there anyway,” she said.

In the case of both dogs, the veterinarians who performed the euthanasia offered to take care of the cremation.

Young, still reeling and with no clue how to handle such things, numbly agreed. In both cases, the hospitals notified her when they got the remains back from the crematorium and told her to come and pick them up. When she got home, she set them on top of her refrigerator until such time as she could get her family together for a trip to the foothills.

She still has Annie’s ashes on her refrigerator. And now, she said she’d have considered other methods of dealing with the bodies had anyone sat her down at the time and explained the various aftercare options.

What Is Aftercare?

If euthanasia is the last stage of care during a pet’s life, aftercare is the next stage that begins when the pet’s life ends.

“Aftercare is kind of a blanket term for the pet death care industry that would encompass cremation, burial, aquamation, composting,” said end-of-life care expert Kathleen Cooney, DVM, MS, CHPV, CCFP. “You could even go so far as to pull in freeze-drying, and taxidermy, and some of the other ways to memorialize the body.”

Founder and director of education at the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy, past president of the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC), and a member of the 2016 AAHA/IAAHPC End-of-Life Care Guidelines task force, Cooney has devoted her career to easing the transition from life to afterlife for pets and grieving owners alike.

By necessity, she’s become an expert on aftercare as well. “Whatever we’re doing with the body in some way or another is aftercare. It’s deceased body care of some sort,” she added, and that includes both disposal of the body and ways to memorialize the pet, whether the pet dies naturally or by euthanasia.

Who Takes Care of Aftercare?

So when does aftercare cease to be the veterinarian’s responsibility?

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As people began treating their pets more like family, they wanted to grieve and remember them when they died the same way they’d grieve a deceased human family member.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Cooney said. “There’s no set answer. And that’s the way it’s been forever.” As long as there’s been organized veterinary medicine, said Cooney, the pet owner has relied on the veterinarian for guidance after a pet dies, much as Young did. Typically, veterinarians would talk through the options and collect the service fee. Clients would leave the deceased pet at the hospital, then the hospital would contact a crematory and say “I have a pet for you to come pick up, can you handle the cremation?” The crematory would pick up the pet, perform the cremation, and most commonly return the pet’s ashes to the hospital. And then the hospital would call the family and let them know the ashes were ready for pickup.

“The crematory was basically a third party,” said Cooney. “The veterinarian was the crematorium’s client, not the family. That’s the way it was for decades.”

Over time, though, many crematoriums saw what they perceived as a growing need in the veterinary aftercare market: As people began treating their pets more like family, they wanted to grieve and remember them when they died the same way they’d grieve a deceased human family member.

Crematoriums also saw that many veterinarians didn’t have the time or resources to deal with grieving pet owners who needed more than just someone who could take the body off their hands. “Vets were busy, and couldn’t always have these deep, emotional conversations that their client families needed,” said Cooney.

So the crematories saw an opportunity to expand their services into more traditional forms of memorialization along the lines of human funeral homes. Some began approaching veterinary practices and saying, “We would like to help your grieving families directly.”

At first, many veterinarians assumed that grieving pet owners didn’t want to be burdened with those kinds of aftercare decisions and nixed the idea. But Cooney said research indicated otherwise. Studies showed that owners actually wanted more information on aftercare options, as well as more aftercare options.

When families work directly with aftercare companies, they appreciate having more options, and importantly, they also get more of what they want. “Crematories are really good with bereavement support,” said Cooney. “Leveraging aftercare reduces demands on the [veterinary] practice and increases resources,” she added. “It’s an absolute win/win for hospitals that find good aftercare companies to partner with. They handle everything. That’s a very new model.”

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When families work directly with aftercare companies, they appreciate having more options, and importantly, they also get more of what they want.

She said hospitals that have adopted that model discover that they now have all kinds of free time they didn’t have before. “That’s a human medicine model,” Cooney added. “It’s been wonderful.”

Cooney noted that for many veterinarians, it’s a real honor to be able to care for a longtime patient even after that patient has passed: “It feels like a complete circle, but again, they’ve never done it any other way. When they see the potential for leveraging aftercare companies, there can be a paradigm shift. They think, ‘I love this patient. But . . .’”

One Pet Owner Who Didn’t Call Her Vet

When Karen Meyer’s 11-year-old yellow Lab Ka$h died of congestive heart failure last June, she passed peacefully at home.

Meyer didn’t call her vet to handle Ka$h’s aftercare. Because she knew the end was coming, she had time to do her research. She called a veterinary aftercare services company that came highly recommended, and they sent out an employee the next morning to pick up Ka$h’s body and take it to be cremated. Meyer said the aftercare company more than lived up to their great reviews: they were very respectful and responsive to Meyer’s needs and wishes.

As for memorializing Ka$h, Meyer and Johnson have made arrangements to have half her ashes buried under a 100-year-old live oak on a friend’s ranch in the Texas hill country. It’s a part of the country that means a lot to the couple.

They’re giving the rest of her ashes to Johnson’s son Grant—Ka$h was technically his dog—who plans to have them made into a diamond ring (see sidebar).

The Humanization of Pet Aftercare

Coleen Ellis, CT, CPLP, doesn’t know exactly when people started to humanize pet aftercare: “You can’t really pinpoint it.” But she said it coincided with the growing trend of people treating pets as part of the family and prioritizing their pet’s healthcare almost as they would a human family member’s.

Ellis is the founder and past cochair of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance and past president of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, where she currently serves as an advisor. In 2004, she founded Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, the first standalone pet funeral home in the US.

Ellis realized that grieving pet owners wanted an opportunity to say goodbye, and they wanted to know they had options as to how they did it. “Pet owners loved the fact they had options,” she said.

At the time, the idea was revolutionary. Back then, she said, most people had their pets cremated, usually at the suggestion of their veterinarian. So prospective clients were often surprised that she didn’t offer that service herself.

The reason was simple: “I didn’t have a crematory,” Ellis said. “I had a pet funeral home.” And she had a pet funeral home because that was what she knew—she’d worked in the human death industry, so she modeled her pet funeral home on human funeral homes. “The pet was laid out in a casket, on a bier,” Ellis said. “So, the pet would lie in state. We’d put flowers in the room.” Ellis said she’d slip the pet’s favorite treats or toys into the casket to be buried with them. People would get up and speak. Share a reading. Or even ask Ellis to say a few words on the fly.

“We created a safe place to say goodbye,” she said. Clients were overwhelmed and grateful for the opportunity. “We sent their pet out in a beautiful way, with a beautiful farewell replete with dignity, respect, and ritual. All the things that said, ‘We love you.’”

Ellis said she marketed to that trend—and found a ready clientele.

“When they came to me, they’d say, ‘We’ve been doing this on our own, saying goodbye in our home, humanizing their death.’” Ellis recalled. “‘But you formalized the process. Gave us a facility. Gave us a little visitation room—all the things we do for human beings.’”

It turned out grieving pet owners were hungry for that, and Ellis didn’t see anything else like it in the veterinary aftercare space.

She may have had the first pet funeral home in the country at the time, but it wasn’t long before she had company: “People saw an opening,” she said. “They said, ‘Here’s another way we can service pet parents.’”

Epilogue

The box containing Annie the Australian cattle dog’s ashes still sits atop Cindy Young’s refrigerator in Loveland, Colorado, but Waddy Schnitzel’s have finally made it to their final resting place.

Young dusted off the box and took it with her on a trail hike near her home where she used to walk Waddy and where openings to prairie dog burrows dot the fields like a monochrome Twister mat. “Waddy used to love chasing prairie dogs,” she recalls. “I’d let her off leash and when she’d see one pop out of its hole, she’d go tearing off after it and dive into the burrow after it, yipping like crazy.”

The breed was built for hunting prey underground—their elongated bodies and short, stubby legs are ideal for subterranean stalking—but to her knowledge, Waddy never caught one.

So what did Young do with Waddy’s remains?

“I poured them down a prairie dog hole,” she says. She considered it an ideal way to honor Waddy’s memory. “That’s where she was happiest.” 

Memorializing Pets

Did you ever picture a grieving pet owner wearing Fido on their finger?

There have long been offbeat ways of memorializing pets from taxidermy to burial plots, but the hottest trend may be “cremation diamonds,” real gemstones created from the carbon naturally found in the ashes and hair of deceased humans and animals.

At Austin-based Eterneva, the cremation diamond business is booming thanks to its founder’s appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to angel investors on camera. Eterneva caught the fancy of Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban, best-known for his Shark Tank appearances and as the majority owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. With Cuban behind the business, Eterneva rocketed to the front of the cremation diamond industry. Yes, there is an industry. And turning pet cremains into diamonds makes up 40% of the business.

The process starts with the bereaved sending in between two tablespoons and one-half cup of their pet’s ashes or hair, which is then subjected to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit and 850,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. Over time, this produces a genuine diamond, which is then cut in Antwerp, graded and engraved, and set in personalized jewelry like a ring or pendant. Eterneva’s process starts at $2,999 for a .1-carat diamond up to $50,000 for a three-carat gem and takes 10 to 12 months. Financing, the website assures, is available.

That’s too rich for most pet owners’ blood. But there are many other ways to memorialize a pet—and most of them are far less than three grand.

For $30 plus shipping, you can have your pet’s paw print, rather than its ashes, memorialized on jewelry, Christmas ornaments, garden stones, clay sculpture, and keychains. Etsy is also a good resource for custom pillows, paintings, memory quilts, and even socks printed with pictures or portraits of the pet. There are pet portraits on canvas too.

It costs $500 to $700 to have a taxidermist preserve a dog or cat, a process that involves cleaning out the preserved body and then stuffing it with cotton. More common as an in-home keepsake is an urn of ashes. And more common still is conventional burial or ash scattering on private land—often in the owner’s backyard, sometimes commemorated with the planting of a tree, shrub, or perennial flowers. Some owners choose to mark the grave with a headstone, the pet’s name carved into a tree, or a garden bench where they can sit and feel close to their loved one.

DIY pet owners are drawn to scrapbooking and memory boxes, simple and affordable ways to memorializing a pet by compiling photos, toys, and other keepsakes in an album or archival-quality storage box decorated with the pet’s name and portrait. Children especially may feel comforted by being able to sift through a physical collection of memories.

It can be hard to be around other animals after losing a pet, but some owners find meaning and purpose by volunteering at a local shelter. When that feels too tender, a donation in the pet’s honor to a shelter or other charity that help animals in need can be a good choice.

Behind all of these options for memorializing a pet is the strong wish to honor and remember a member of the family whose life is inevitably far shorter than that of most owners. Grieving the loss of a pet who was considered a close friend and beloved companion can take time. Perhaps owners can be forgiven for a money-isno-object approach.

In 1947, charged with creating a De Beer’s Consolidated Mines advertising slogan to convince the American public that diamonds were both valuable and rare, copywriter Frances Gerety wrote, “A Diamond Is Forever.” Now, thanks to technology, Fido can be too.

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Tony McReynolds is AAHA’s NEWStat editor.

Photo credits: Photo courtesy of Cindy Young; Andrey Zhuravlev/iStock via Getty Images; DarrenMower/iStock via Getty Images

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