What I Wish Every Pet Owner Knew About End-of-Life Care, Part I

Young Labrador with baby and toddler
The author’s dog with her kids, taken in 2007.

Losing a beloved pet is never easy, whether you think of them as your furbaby, your best friend, or simply your most loyal companion. No matter where the two of you are on life’s journey, there are steps you can take now to make those last precious days count, and to ease the final transition when the time comes.

Here in Part I, we will talk about what you can do before your pet gets sick or even starts to show any gray hairs.


It’s never too early to…

Ask yourself: what makes my pet happy? Your relationship is a long string of those little moments: cuddled on the couch watching TV as your cat purrs on your lap; playing fetch at the dog park or going swimming at the beach; seeing Fido get sooooo excited to have the BEST DINNER EVER – dog kibble again! These things bring joy to your lives and enhance the bond you share. The specifics will change and evolve over time, and it’s good to stop every now and then and take stock of what brings you both happiness. This exercise will keep you tuned into your pet’s quality of life as he or she ages. Noticing changes gives you the opportunity to find creative workarounds, seek advice and treatment from your vet, or make informed decisions about end-of-life care.


Think about aftercare. At first, it may seem morbid to contemplate how you would like your pet’s remains handled when they are still young and healthy. You hope to enjoy their company for a long natural lifespan, but tragedies unfortunately do happen when we least expect. Knowing your options ahead of time will spare you having to familiarize yourself with them in the midst of grieving.

The most common arrangements are:

  1. Burial. If you have the space and it’s legal, many pet owners take comfort in having their beloved laid to rest at home. This is also, of course, the most affordable option. Some practical considerations are the time of year (if the ground freezes), how long you intend to stay where you live, and whether you can dig a grave deep enough (3-4 feet is strongly recommended).  Although an expensive alternative, a pet cemetery may be available in your area.
  2. Communal cremation. If a burial is not possible or desired, cremation services will be needed. In a communal cremation, pets are not separated in the chamber and their ashes will be mingled. For this reason, you will not be able to have the ashes returned to you. Instead, they will be buried or disposed of in another way. You can ask about the specifics from your vet or the particular service provider if this concerns you.
  3. Individual cremation is more expensive than communal cremation, but as the pets will be separated by dividers, you will have the ashes returned to you. Generally, a nice generic vessel will be included in the cost. You may also have the option of ordering a special urn or memorial – the possibilities really are endless.

Other mementos such as a keepsake box, a clay paw print or a small snippet of hair or fur can be a comforting remembrance.


Save up money for emergencies. You may not have the finances or the desire to spend several thousand dollars on life-saving surgery or chemotherapy, and it is certainly not a requirement for having pets. It is wise, however, to set aside some funds for the unexpected. Emergency clinics have to keep the lights on and pay a highly skilled staff 24/7/365, and will need to charge you accordingly. How much is enough depends on where you live, but 3-4 times the cost of an annual well visit, including vaccines and heartworm testing/prevention, might be a good rule of thumb for starters. An increasingly good option is pet insurance, although there is a lot of variation in what the various companies will cover and what they charge. Ask your vet what’s available where you live, read the fine print carefully, and ask questions whenever you’re unsure about something before committing.


Know your vet’s after hours policy and the location of the nearest emergency clinic. Having to frantically call several clinics to find someone who is available is a stressor that you can live without.


As your pet ages…

Learn to recognize the signs of pain and arthritis. The latest statistics suggest 20% of all pet dogs of any age, and 90% of all cats over age ten, have arthritis pain. Not all of the signs are obvious. You can read more about them here so that you know what to watch out for. You can also take our popular Pets in Pain Quiz to test your knowledge.


Be aware of some other common symptoms of illness. 

This list isn’t meant to be all-inclusive, but schedule a checkup if you notice:

  • Your pet’s activity level changes
  • An increase or decrease in food or water intake
  • Unexpected weight gain or loss
  • Changes in potty habits (accidents, asking to go more frequently, loss of housetraining)
  • Personality changes

If something else is different or you “just have a feeling” something is not right (that’s happened to me, a veterinarian of all people, and it took months to figure out what was going on) don’t be shy about calling your vet and asking if you should be concerned. They won’t mind – they would much rather help you out early on in an illness, and fielding the occasional “false alarm” is a price they willingly pay for that!


The above tips should help you prepare for when the inevitable finally comes (and may it be many, many years and snuggles and hotly pursued balls and long walks down the line). In Part II, we will cover what you can do to understand your options when your pet gets a terminal diagnosis.


Did you see the other parts in this series?

This Page– Steps you can take at any life stage to prepare for end-of-life

Part II – What to do when a terminal diagnosis has been made

Part III – End-of-life planning and decision-making

Part IV – Addressing your own emotional needs

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