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What to do when your dog dies

The essentials

  • The passing of a pet is traumatic — Pets are family, and losing a beloved dog can be as tough as losing a human family member.
  • There are steps you should take — When a dog dies unexpectedly, you must think fast and prepare.
  • You have options — While burial may seem like the only option to pet owners, that may not be possible. Also, it isn’t the only choice.

Losing a dog is hard, no matter if you’re in the vet’s office or at home. When you lose your pet, there are decisions you’ll have to make and steps you will need to unfortunately take. It’s important to take some of the guesswork out of such a traumatic, tough moment. Keep reading for the steps and need-to-know information for what to do when your dog dies.

1. Assess the situation

It’s hard to lose a pet. What makes it even harder is the list of things you will need to do once  your beloved dog has crossed the rainbow bridge.

Make sure your pet has passed

First and foremost, make sure your pet has passed away. For example, pets that sleep deeply may not respond to their name or petting. The best way to make sure your pet is still alive is by feeling for a heartbeat. It can be very tough to feel a heartbeat or pulse on a pet, so regardless it’s best to rush to a vet’s office or an emergency vet for confirmation.

🚨If your pet is experiencing any kind of distress, like injuries or signs of illness, get to an emergency vet.

Prepare the area

When mammals pass away, muscles relax and release, which can cause urination or defecation. Because of this, it’s best to put a blanket or a towel under your pet’s body and clean up after your pet.

👉 If you’re in a warmer climate and cannot immediately remove your pet’s body, move them to a cool, dry space. 

If children, roommates, or other family members are expected, cover the pet with a blanket or meet them before they enter the area to save them from the shock.

You’ll also want to allow other pets in the home to visit with the deceased pet. This helps other pets understand what has happened.

2. Call for help

After you have the area contained and cleaned up, there are a few phone calls you should make for your own benefit as well as others.

  • Your veterinarian. If your pet has been chronically ill, you’ve likely spent a fair amount of time in your vet’s office. Many veterinarians and their staff care deeply for their patients. They are experiencing your pet’s death too, and it’s a kindness to let them know what has happened.
  • Your support system. Losing a pet is often heartbreaking. Lean on your support system, particularly those that can empathize with the connection you and your family had with the pet who has passed.

It's true. And it is HARD. It's hard to leave the loss of a pet or patient at work. Grief is a heavy weight, and it comes home with a lot of us. There have been occasions where I dealt with the loss of my own pet but had to carry on with my work day for the sake of my patients. Fortunately, I work with VERY understanding pet parents, so it makes the job much easier.

Dr. Erica Irish

3. After-care and your pet

Many times, a vet can provide guidance on properly caring for your pet’s remains. Knowing what you can do and what’s legal in your area is a good idea, even before your pet passes.

Burying your pet

In the United States, a backyard burial depends on what state you’re in as well as local laws. Overall, state and local regulations regarding pet or animal burial are far less strict than human remains. Here’s a quick breakdown of state laws.

Territory/State(s) Type Definition
Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and the US Virgin Islands* Backyard burial When a pet dies naturally, you can bury them in your backyard without any restrictions.
Alabama, Connecticut, Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and West Virginia Backyard burial, with depth restrictions It’s OK to bury your pet in your backyard in these states. Still, on average, they must be at least 3 feet deep.
Missouri, Missouri, Nebraska, and New Hampshire Backyard burial, with distance restrictions While owners can bury deceased pets on their property, they need to be a minimum of 300 feet from property lines, bodies of water, and any wells on the property.
Arizona, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming Varies In these states, it may be necessary to bury your dog in a public pet cemetery. It varies by city and county.
Arkansas and California Illegal In these states, it isn’t legal to bury your pet in your backyard.
Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, Micronesia, Guam, Marshall Islands, and Palau Unknown We’ve reached out to these territories and are waiting to hear back.

*Authorities we spoke to were not aware of any territory-wide laws restricting natural death, backyard burials of pets. However, it’s still wise to consult with your veterinarian.

Some counties and cities may have ordinances in addition to, or in lieu of, state and territory laws regarding pet burial, so it’s best to check with your local government or seek advice from your vet.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind regardless of what state or part of the world you’re in.

  • Winter. In some northern states, it may be necessary to consider cremation due to frozen grounds.
  • Health hazard. Overall, avoid burying your pet near streams, lakes, or wells to prevent contamination.
  • Infectious disease. For pets with a zoonotic disease , cremation may be best for your safety and the environment.
  • HOAs. Those living in a community with an HOA will need to make sure they aren’t violating the rules of their homeowner’s association before burying their pet.

Explore cremation as an option

In many cases, cremation may be a better option than burial for pet owners. Cremation costs vary and depend on a few different factors.

  • Method. Pet owners can choose a communal cremation (cheapest) or private cremation (most expensive).
  • Size. Larger pets will cost more, whereas smaller pets typically cost less.
  • Location. Larger cities typically charge more due to issues outside their control, such as rent, leasing, taxes, etc.

One benefit of cremation over burial is that you never have to leave your pet. Pet owners who choose to cremate their pet can take them with them when they move to a new home. Many crematories will send your beloved dog home in a wooden box. Additionally, pet owners can choose to shop for their urns. Here are a few options:

Additionally, multi-packs are available for families. The downside to purchasing your own urn over going with one offered by the crematorium is that if purchased after the fact, the responsibility of filling individual urns falls on the grieving pet owner. Some crematoriums will fill these for you, but not all do.

4. Moving forward

Losing a pet is losing a loved one. It may not be the same as losing a human family member, but for those who love animals or have little family to speak of, coping with the loss of a pet is very difficult. It’s important to remember that you and your family are grieving, and there are a few ways to help with that.

  • Support system. Lean on the support of your family and friends, as well as pet loss support groups, and seek professional help as you begin grieving the loss of your dog.
  • Memorial. Particularly if this is your child’s first experience with death and their first dog, a memorial service may be a good way to help them say goodbye to a beloved pet.
  • Clean up. Consider packing away your pet’s belongings to help alleviate the constant reminders. When you’re ready, you can bring their belongings back out or donate them for other dogs.
  • Adoption. Some owners find that adopting a new dog can help with grief. New pets are a big responsibility, so it’s important to be sure that you’re emotionally and physically up for that. You may also consider fostering.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a beloved pet; it’s important to find a healthy way to grieve that works for you and your family.

Frequently asked questions

What do you do if your dog passes away at home?

First, make sure that your pet has actually passed away. Then, prepare the space by making sure they are in a cool, dry place with towels beneath them to protect the floor. Reach out to the vet to let them know, as well as your support system. If you have kids or other family, prepare them before they come in to say goodbye.

How do you dispose of a dead dog?

There are low and no-cost options, such as burying your dog in the backyard, or calling animal control. Additionally, your vet may be able to arrange for cremation via their clinic, or you can contact a local crematorium that does pet cremation.

How do I stop being sad when my dog dies?

Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy or quick fix. Self-care, healthy mourning practices, and leaning on your support system is the best way to heal when your dog dies. It takes time to mourn a pet, and there isn’t a universal deadline, nor is it a straight line.

What does one do if their dog dies at home and you can’t afford to dispose of it?

If it’s legal to bury your dog on your own property, that is an option. If physically you can’t do it, utilize social media. In some cases, some people may be willing to help dig a suitable hole for your dog.  You can also contact your local rescue group to see if they may be able to help with cremation costs.

How can I help someone with the loss of their dog?

Acknowledge and validate their feelings of loss, even if you don’t understand them, and keep an eye on their emotional state. Make sure they are taking care of their basic needs, such as eating, bathing, etc., and be available for anything they may need during the healing process. It’s also helpful to make suggestions and provide distractions during more depressive periods while also providing comfort.