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What to do when a pet passes away at home

Losing a beloved pet is a heart-breaking experience. When the time comes, it’s important to know where to find support for yourself and your family, including other pets. For those whose pet has passed away at home, there may be the additional shock of finding them and the burden of planning with no immediate professional help. If your pet is reaching the end of their life, knowing what to expect and seeking your veterinarian’s advice early is the best way to protect your pet from suffering and to guide you through this difficult time.

Planning your pet’s final days

It’s common for owners to want their pet to pass naturally at home, in the comfort of familiar surroundings with their loved ones around them. For pets who are frail and unwell, being transported to the veterinary clinic can seem like an unnecessary stress. Although you may imagine your pet will one day go to sleep peacefully and not wake up, the reality is unpredictable, and could be distressing for an animal, who may struggle with pain and difficulty breathing.

The way to avoid this is to have a plan for when your pet is approaching the end of their lifespan, especially if their veterinarian has diagnosed a terminal condition. For your pet’s welfare, euthanasia may be the most humane option. Euthanasia allows for a peaceful and pain-free death and can be performed at home where your pet feels most comfortable. We recommend speaking to your veterinarian about whether this is the best option for your pet.

If your pet’s health can still be managed to keep them pain-free with good quality of life, an increasingly popular option is palliative care, also referred to as pet hospice care. This must be decided in consultation with your veterinarian and involves caring for your pet under veterinary supervision to allow them to spend their final weeks at home in comfort. You will need to closely supervise your pet and provide intensive nursing care along with company, stimulation and rest.

Care includes monitoring for signs of pain, giving medications (particularly pain relief), nutritious food, suitable bedding and assistance with mobility and toileting as needed. Regular communication with your veterinarian will help you review your pet’s quality of life to identify when palliative care can no longer meet their physical and emotional needs and when in-home euthanasia is the most humane option. Palliative care provided by mobile veterinarians is an emerging field and involves extended home visits for assistance with all aspects of care in collaboration with the primary veterinarian. Palliative care veterinarians also provide in-home euthanasia and assist with aftercare arrangements and grief support.

When your pet has passed

Sometimes owners are in the sad position of finding that their pet has unexpectedly passed at home. If this happens to you, seek guidance from your veterinarian as soon as possible, preferably by taking your pet into the practice. Your veterinarian will confirm your pet’s death, assist with aftercare arrangements and can even investigate the cause and circumstances around your pet’s death if they feel it’s necessary.

If your pet seems to have passed away but it is not possible for you to transport your pet to travel to a clinic, a veterinarian can advise you by phone of the signs to look for to confirm that the pet has indeed passed. For example, lack of breathing (confirmed by placing your hand on your pet’s chest to exclude the usual rise and fall movement), lack of heartbeat (confirmed by placing your finger on their chest under the armpit) and lack of corneal reflex (not blinking when you touch the eyeball).

If you need to move your pet after they pass away, it’s best to have someone help you do this safely and appropriately. When animals pass, their bodies may release fluids, so you’ll need to wear gloves and consider placing towels around them. If you take over 24 hours to decide what to do with their body, your veterinarian or a pet funeral service can advise you.

When it’s been confirmed that your pet has passed, you should take the time you and your family need to be with them.

The easiest way to decide how to lay your pet to rest is to contact your local veterinary practice. Your veterinarian will explain the options for burial (including a pet cemetery if there are safety issues with burying your pet at home) or cremation. Alternatively, they can recommend a pet memorial service. Having this kind of professional assistance allows you to focus on how you wish to commemorate your pet in a way that honours the bond you shared. Examples can include taking mementos such as a paw print or lock of fur and planting a special tree in your pet’s favourite spot.

Grieving over the loss of your pet is very real, so if you need extra support, your veterinarian can advise you about specialised pet grief counselling services, including phone support through Griefline. And don’t overlook the needs of your other pets. We know that animals grieve, but there is much to learn about how our pets grieve the loss of another pet in the household. Watch for any change in behaviour, which may include loss of appetite, hiding, loss of interest in their usual routines, signs of withdrawal or depression, separation anxiety such as pacing or restlessness. It’s important to seek veterinary advice and rule out any medical causes.

Having cared for your precious pet throughout their life, you will want to do everything you can to ensure they pass peacefully and have dignified aftercare. You and the rest of your family, including other pets, should also be supported as you grieve. Your veterinarian is the most important source of guidance throughout this process.

Another thing to consider to help care for your pet is to have a pet insurance policy which can help reduce your veterinary bills, and help ensure your pet receives veterinary care as needed from a young age. And if you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums will help support the RSPCA.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.