Article submitted by Kent A. Kruse, DVM
President, Kruse Veterinary Consulting
As a new graduate veterinarian in 1963, I thought of myself as a well-educated animal mechanic. I had been raised in a household supported by my father’s skills as electric motor repairman and I used to help him with his business. While my incentive to become a veterinarian was more grounded in a love for animals, I had graduated with the self-image of a mechanical problem solver similar to my father, but with skills to diagnose and fix broken or sick pets.
When I interviewed for my first job as a veterinarian, my soon-to-be boss showed me around his very comfortable and complete animal hospital located on the edge of the city. The tour included a spacious grassy area adjacent to the rear fence line of the hospital property. Pointing to the well-groomed grass, he directed my gaze to several long rows of small, granite grave markers. All had simple inscriptions with a pet’s name and expressions of affection carved permanently into their shiny surfaces. My new employer explained that, when he began his practice, grieving pet owners would seek advice from about what to do with pet remains after an end-of-life event. At that time, there were only two options…either a pet owner had to locate and dig a burial site, or hire someone to do it for them. Realizing he had an opportunity to offer a needed service, my new boss had established an animal cemetery on the hospital property.
I remember being quite amazed that grief for a deceased pet could be strong enough to result in a permanent memorial similar to that for the loss of a departed friend or relative. That same puzzlement continued through the summer and fall of my first year as a veterinarian. It continued, in fact, up to about a week before Christmas. Clients, whose pets I had medically treated in the early months of my career began delivering very personal Christmas gifts to me at the animal hospital. I received home-canned pickles, cookies, bread, candy, liquor, gloves, knitted scarfs, and other gifts all accompanied by deeply emotional cards or notes expressing appreciation for the care I had provided for their pets. It was at that point I realized that I was much more than an animal mechanic. My primary function as a trained and caring veterinarian was to administer to the emotional needs of people who loved their pets as strongly as a human member of the family. With this new insight to my true professional purpose, I then understood the significance of the rows of granite grave markers behind the hospital building.
The Evolution Begins
As I progressed through my early years as a veterinarian, my recognition and appreciation to the emotional attachment to pets progressed as well. The human animal bond became a better understood entity throughout the profession with conference courses devoted to it and an organized society to support it. Dr. Jack Stephens, the distinguished pet health insurance pioneer, described the bond relationship by joking that “dogs have gone from the barn, to the yard, and to the bed.” Many would add that allowing a pet to also share their pillow was the ultimate expression of human devotion. Nationally, the $17 billion spent on pets in 1994 increased to over $58 billion in 2014 (1) illustrating the ever growing dedication of people to their pets. Pet owners were becoming “pet parents” and referred to themselves as their pet’s “mommy” or “daddy.”
While veterinarians progressed with their recognition of the human animal bond, the pet end-of-life experience for bonded “parents” was slower to advance. When my own animal hospital was being designed in 1979, I included a pet grieving room with a private entrance to accommodate my client’s emotional needs expected during this difficult event. Yet, the disposal method available for pet remains was alarmingly crude. In my early practice years, there were no animal crematoriums. Those who could afford it bought expensive pet caskets and buried their pets in animal cemeteries. The only other public option was disposal in a nearby county landfill where pet remains were buried with garbage and refuse. After much persuading, county authorities finally designated an area for the exclusive burial of pet remains. Later, a gas-fired cremation pit was provided for the same purpose. The crudeness of that facility was mind-boggling and I can’t begin to describe how much I abhorred it. Later, the city built and opened an elaborate refuse incinerator but again, the co-mingling of pet remains and garbage was unavoidable. The only thing I could guarantee to my clients was that no truck would back up to my hospital door and carry their pets away. I personally transported every single deceased pet to their final resting place shaking my head in dismay every time I did it.
Finally, my discomfort for the situation came to the point where I decided to take personal action. I designed and had constructed an attractive building in an area behind my hospital building and installed a state-of-the-art pet crematorium. I then had complete control of my patient’s end-of-life process and could offer my clients the option of retaining pet cremains which could be memorialized in whatever manner they desired. The ubiquitous cedar box became the standard container for grieving pet owners to hold the cremated remains of their beloved pets. Never again, however, would any of my patients be relegated to a degrading fate by being mixed with garbage and trash.
While veterinary science and technology over the past thirty years have comfortably extended our patient’s lives and activity, technical solutions to the end-of-life process have been slow to advance. The cremation process has become much more available with some veterinarians operating their own cremation equipment or taking advantage of regional facilities which offer pickup service. Today, some human crematoriums also offer pet cremation services. While modern cremation equipment itself has become “cleaner” and more efficient, many older facilities are now technologically outdated and face regulatory termination. Many municipalities have adopted strict anti-pollution ordinances and are becoming very restrictive when requested to license new cremation equipment. The fact remains that the cremation process consumes vast amounts of energy and spews tons of hydrocarbons into our atmosphere. The often toxic remains initially may be memorialized and stored but will almost inevitably be returned back to the earth or water where their ultimate polluting effect still has not been documented.
While cremation for both humans and pets has been a long-time solution for the inevitable end-of-life event, a little known technology patented on Christmas day in 1888 has recently been modified to provide a gentler and totally green disposal alternative.
Alkaline Hydrolysis (Aquamation)
Briefly defined, alkaline hydrolysis is the acceleration of the natural body decomposition process through the immersion of pet remains in a heated, alkaline, solution for a period of approximately 20 or more hours. The process reduces the body to clean bones which, after a 3-4 day drying process, can be ground to a granular consistency of white, beach sand. The bone granules are highly suitable for memorialization or disposal by the pet owner.
The AH process mimics tissue degradation which occurs naturally when bodies are buried and subjected to insects and soil bacteria. Enhanced by high temperatures and the circulation of an alkaline water solution around the pet remains,alkaline hydrolysis is clearly the opposite of burning by fire and as a result provides outstanding benefits.(2)
• AH requires only 20% of the energy needed for cremation.
• AH destroys ALL pathogens.
• AH converts fixatives (embalming agents), cytotoxic agents (chemotherapy drugs) and other toxins to harmless, biodegradable derivatives.
• The AHhydrolysate (effluent) is an excellent form of fertilizer for crops or trees or a nutrient source for anaerobic or aerobic sewage treatment plants.
• The end products of AH are sterile and not harmful to the environment in any way.
• The aquamains are aesthetically more acceptable than the ashes resulting from cremation.
• In general, alkaline hydrolysis is a very gentle process and more appealing than flame cremation.
As a result of the sterile disposal and green advantages of the alkaline hydrolysis process, commercial AH units have been in use in medical colleges, research facilities, veterinary colleges, and institutions like the Mayo Clinic for a number of years. Approximately ten states have licensed single-body systems for use in the funeral industry. In 2013, the manufacturers of human alkaline hydrolysis systems began producing smaller units for use in the processing of pet remains.
While the use of alkaline hydrolysis for the disposal of pet remains in the United States is in its infancy, the service is gaining popularity and available in a number of cities around the country. The technology has been available for use for pet owners in Southern California for over a year and is achieving increasing popularity. Jerry Shevick, CEO of Peaceful Pets Aquamation in Newbury Park, stated that “thanks to great acceptance and recommendation by area veterinarians, our business has grown and we are now looking for a larger facility so we can expand our capacity.” Shevick noted that “many veterinarians recommending aquamation initially offered a choice of either flame cremation or aquamation to their clients. With the cost being approximately the same, pet owners have been overwhelmingly selecting aquamation.” As a result, most veterinarians who originally offered a choice have stopped offering flame cremation as a pet remains disposal option.
Intermediate Remains Handling
Often overlooked in the after-care process is how the pet remains are handled or treated between the time the pet is placed in a cadaver bag and when the cremains or aquamains are returned in a memorial urn or container. Because the cadaver bag is, in fact, a garbage bag,deceased pets placed in a bag are often handled as garbage. To further the degradation, the bags are then placed in garbage containers or unceremoniously stored in a large chest freezer. The next step, of course, is when the pet remains are transported, usually in the back of a pickup truck, to a facility for “processing,” Very few death-care companies provide refrigerated, enclosed vans for this final trip. Finally, and usually unknown, is how the deceased pets are handled once they reach the after-care facility.
Dr. Marty Becker, noted author and speaker, recently wrote that “unlike most other healthcare professionals, we provide cradle-to-grave care, and when it works like it should, a ‘good death’ is the bookend to a “good life.” Dr. Becker points out “that the veterinary community mostly chooses who to use for these (after-care) services based on cost, or rebates, or seemingly at random.”(2) It is my observation that loyalty to a veterinary-owned after-care facility can also be a strong, but not necessarily deserved incentive in the selection process. Following are suggestions for the selection of an after-care provider:
• Does the provider utilize a gentle, low-energy-consuming process?
• Are the fees reasonable?
• Are pet remains transported in an enclosed, refrigerated van equipped with shelves to avoid “piling”?
• How are deceased pets handled and cremains or aquamains identified to guarantee accurate identity integrity during processing?
• Are paw-print impressions provided?
• Is the remains container provided by the service consistent with the respect due to the deceased pet? (Note: paint cans are NOT acceptable!)
• Are pet remains returned in a reasonable time?
• Isinternet tracking information available to either the veterinarian or pet owner?
• Has a representative from your practice visited the after-care facility so pet-owners can be personally assured of the quality and respect provided by the end-of-life process?
My long career as a veterinarian has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to observe and be a part of the end-of-life transition. Our profession has discovered and embraced the human animal bond and progressed to a full recognition of the support value of the end-of-life process. We now routinely provide pain management for pets in their final days, guide pet owners to hospice services, design specialized grieving rooms in our hospitals, and offer in-home euthanasia services. We help pet owners select a gentle solution for processing their pet remains, assist in providing pet-remains containers, show them how they can memorialize their pets with a tree or shrub,and recommend trusted grief counselors. Because we care, we do it all with dignity and respect for the furry companion whose healthy life and dignified death has been entrusted to us. For me, personally, the granite grave markers introduced to me fifty-three years ago have provided me with the insight to be true to my profession and the dedicated pet owners I have had the privilege of serving.
(1) US Pet Industry Spending Figures and Future Outlook, American Pet Products Assn. Accessed via the internet April 2, 2015
(2) The History of Alkaline Hydrolysis, Joseph E. Wilson. Accessed via the Internet, April 2, 2015
(3) A Positive End to a Good Life, Dr. Marty Becker. Veterinary Economics, July, 2014
Dr. Kent Kruse is the President of Kruse Veterinary Consulting. After founding and growing a successful small animal practice in Wisconsin, Dr. Kruse co-founded Impromed, a highly successful veterinary management software company. After attempting to retire, Dr. Kruse joined the pet health insurance industry and most recently was the Chief Operating Officer for Veterinary Pet Insurance for nine years and then Vice President of Professional Relations for PurinaCare, a Nestle Purina pet health insurance company for 5.5 years. Dr. Kruse resides with his wife, Ginner, in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin and provides consulting services for veterinary practices seeking to increase practice revenues by recommending pet health insurance and companies providing aftercare services for pets.