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Pet cremation: questions and answers for veterinarians

Don't underestimate importance of death-care


January 4, 2017
By:

Michael Ames, DVM


For The VIN News Service



Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Ames
Dr. Michael Ames

Friends from all over the country call me with questions about pet cremation. They want to know whether they'll receive the correct ashes. They wonder about the differences between group or communal cremations versus pricier private cremations. And are the premium services offered by some crematories worth the expense?

I often reply by first acknowledging the value of their questions. "This is important," I say. "You might have saved Spike's life three times over the last 14 years, but if the death-care arrangements that your hospital handled for the client are botched, you have lost the client forever."

The vast majority of pet-cremation services are terrific. The very few bad apples out there hurt all of us, but thankfully, they usually don't stay in business. Bad business practices and fraud almost always become public, and there is too much downside to being subpar in this industry for people to risk it.

As a veterinarian who's been in the cremation business for nearly 25 years, I offer my inside perspective. Here's my advice about what you should know and ask your cremation provider, if you offer such services through your practice.

Show up, look around

Visit the cremation operation you are using. If it is not a place you would want to send your own pet, do not send your clients' pets there! Eventually, you will have a client who wants to see the facility where their animal companion will be cremated, and you want to be able to send them there with confidence.

Veterinary professionals deal with clinical mess to a certain degree every day. If you walk into a cremation facility and are taken aback, imagine how your clients will feel. Look at what types of cremators they have. Are they big square boxes with a hydraulic door in front that goes up, like what's often seen in human crematories, or are they incinerators, which usually have a round front door or a door that lifts open from the top? Incinerators can do cremations well, but they cost less than a typical hot-hearth human unit and are not as fast and efficient. Whether the crematory uses walk-in or chest freezers to hold pets prior to cremation is not important. What is important is that they're clean and working well. 

When you inspect the facility, do it from the perspective of a client who has just lost a pet. Does the crematory offer a comfort room for people who come to witness a cremation? 

Avoid cremation services that do not allow any public inspection at any time or do not offer witnessed cremation services, but don't expect to simply pop in. A cremation service might want to schedule visitations because there will be times when staff are out doing retrievals or in the midst of working, perhaps with a veterinarian who's euthanizing a horse for cremation or with another client on a witnessed cremation. Most facilities do not want the public touring while they are actively placing bodies in cremators. Like human funeral homes and cremation services, it is a business that requires some privacy and for good reasons.

Types of cremation services 

There are three general types of cremation services offered for pets: communal or group; separate; and private.

  • Communal or group cremation is for clients who do not want their pet's ashes returned but do not want the pet's body to go straight to a landfill. Communal cremation means that many animal bodies are placed in a crematory unit at one time and cremated together. The size of the load is limited by the size of the cremator, and it could be thousands of pounds. The ash is then removed from the cremator and taken to a landfill or scattered.Your service can let you know what they do with communal ash. When it comes to what is done with communal ashes, I have one suggestion. If a client is very concerned about communal ash disposal, they need to get a cremation with ashes returned so they can control what happens to the ash.

  • Separate cremation is the most common type of cremation for owners who want the ashes returned. Depending on the design and size of the cremator, a number of pets can be placed in the unit and the cremation cycle run without the ashes comingling. It is important to keep in mind that a typical cremator designed for humans has a floor that is 3.5 feet wide by 7.5 feet deep. Three 50-pound pets can easily be placed in a hot cremator and done in about the same time it takes to cremate a single 50-pound pet.

    Separate cremations performed by a good, experienced operator offer some benefits. The ash quality and integrity is just as good as what you get with a private cremation and often more affordable. In terms of pollution, it is best to run a crematory at design capacity, probably 75- to 150 pounds-per-hour. designed to cremate 150 pounds-per-hour. Half of the greenhouse gas emissions from a crematory are just from the natural gas burned, and cremating a single 50-pound dog in a large human crematory is NOT environmentally friendly.

  • Private cremation involves one pet in the chamber at a time, and the ashes are returned. It is usually considerably more expensive than a separate cremation. Owners who choose private cremation often do so for emotional reasons because, when done properly, there is no difference in the quality of cremains from a separate cremation versus a private one. Sometimes a pet is so large that this is the only type of cremation possible if the owner wants the ashes returned. Pets weighing fewer than three pounds should be placed in a cremation pan whether they're in a separate or private cremation.

My company, like many others, offers all three types of cremation and makes an effort to educate our veterinary clients about what's involved with each service. We also get calls from pet owners who want to know what type of cremation their veterinarian has selected. 

Do your homework

Ask your cremation service the questions your clients might want answered. The ability to provide owners with accurate information is a valuable asset.

Does your cremation service return orthopedic implants in with the cremains? Some will, and some do not. Ashes have to be processed (ground up) before they're returned and steel or titanium implants must be removed and placed back in with the ashes. Some services do not want to worry about that. We typically return all surviving items in the ash. If you use a service that does not return a bone plate, the owner might worry that there was a problem because no bone plate was found in the cremains. So let them know up front.

Does your service use steel identification discs for verification? This is fast-becoming an industry standard. Sometimes clients will find a cremation disc and call, very upset, because their pet did not have a collar, which leads them to surmise that they have the incorrect cremains.

What's the turnaround time on cremations with ashes returned? The longer it takes, the more calls you will field from worried clients who ask, "Is Buffy back yet?" You want to be able to estimate when they will receive their cremains.

Appearance

Look closely at cremains if they are returned in an openable box. They will probably be in a baggie. Sets of ashes should not be identical. Some will be processed less and, therefore, appear to be more coarse. Some will be darker, and some may be off-color, usually due to pet food dyes in fecal matter or dyes used in a blanket the pet was wrapped in.

Examine how finely the cremains are processed. Extremely coarse ash with large intact bone chunks eventually will cause a problem with clients. If your service routinely sends you ash that is dark gray to black, they are not adequately cremating the pet. Most ash returned to a client should be off-white to light gray.

The amount of ash expected for a particular pet can lead to concern and questions. Cremains only represent bone ash. Soft tissue leaves no ash when properly cremated. A 55-pound Greyhound usually will have far more ash than a very fat 60-pound cocker spaniel. Older pets, particularly those with chronic renal failure, frequently will have much less ash than expected for their size. A pet with osteosarcoma (or any osteogenic pathology) may have far more ash than expected. A 10-pound cat frequently will have more cremains than a 10-pound Chihuahua.

Death-care matters. Armed with information, veterinarians can guide their clients' expectations about cremation.

About the author: Dr. Michael J. Ames is a 1983 graduate of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. He opened a mixed-animal practice in 1987 in Douglas, Arizona, and later installed a small crematory behind his clinic. Ames opened Ames Diversified Services, LLC, in 1992, which provides cremation services to hundreds of veterinarians throughout Arizona and Colorado. Ames represents Arizona veterinarians in the American Veterinary Medical Association House of Delegates.


VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.




VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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