A Pet’s Home Burial

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As the days warm, pet owners who’ve lost a pet tend to contemplate the option of home burial.  There is no set figure on how many people choose backyard burial over pet cremation or pet cemetery burial, but the number is likely very high. Handling things themselves increases their ability to design the event to their liking, saves money, and eliminates the middleman.  It does however bring complications, many of which the pet owner has never considered. Those involved in the pet industry, especially those dealing regularly with end-of-life issues are encouraged to learn home burial issues to protect the pet, community, and planet.

A few key considerations need to be addressed up front:

  • Owning the burial property – the pet owner either needs to own the property they want to use or have clear permission to use another’s.
  • Burying deep enough – the optimal depth to bury a deceased pet is between 3 to 5 feet.  This allows for microbes to reduce the body while being deep enough to prevent most wildlife from reaching it.  Additional cover like stone slabs are always helpful.
  • Avoiding utilities and tree roots – burying a pet deep means pet owners may encounter buried utility lines.  Encourage them to learn what’s in the area before starting. And many love to bury pets under trees. While good in theory, damage to roots may kill the tree.
  • Avoiding flood planes – the burial spot should be level or slightly higher than other surrounding areas to avoid pooling water.  To the detriment of neighboring communities, water picks up disease and chemicals and may move it downstream. 

Pets are most commonly euthanized with overdoses of anesthetic drugs, classified at these levels as poisons.  The most common euthanasia drug in the United States is pentobarbital, a drug that has been proven to linger in the body for years and leaches into the surrounding soil.  Any pet euthanized with pentobarbital must be properly buried or better still, handled in a safer manner. Sky burials, where pets are left out in the open for nature to ‘take its course’ is prohibited for any animal euthanized with pentobarbital or similar drugs. 

In this author’s opinion, having seen many home burial plots pre-prepared, pet owners often miss the mark on proper depth and location.  All veterinary professionals should inform pet owners on burial requirements within their local communities. Each community, be it city or rural land, will have mandated rules to follow which hold authority over what’s listed here.  Should another animal die from ingesting euthanasia solution within the body of a deceased pet, the fine for the veterinarian can be as high as $500,000 depending on the type of animal (ex. endangered species).

Safer Alternatives
Because of the risk to wildlife and the soil around the body, home burial is not the ideal first choice.  The original owner may move and leave a body buried for new homeowners to manage. Burial produces methane gas, a contributor to climate change.  Perhaps we should advocate more for safer forms of body management such as alkaline hydrolysis or proper composting. If home burial is the only option, provide written instructions and consider having pet owners sign a document proving their desire to get it right. We want to honor what’s important to them while preserving the wellbeing of the natural environment.

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Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, CCFP Founder, Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy
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