Pets are like family members to a lot of us, especially dogs and cats. When one of these pets dies it can be really hard on the whole family and you want to make sure your pet gets the end of life celebration it deserves.
For those of us with a backyard, burial seems the kindest and easiest way to give our pets a good send-off, but is burying a pet illegal?
In America, it all depends on where you bury the pet. There are pet cemeteries in all 50 of the States and you can always bury your pet there legally. As for a backyard burial, many people still do this, but it may be against the laws in certain areas, so check with your State and local laws first.
Before deciding if you want to bury your pet either at a pet cemetery or in the backyard you should know some things about a burial.
There are a lot of things that you may not know, and other options that you haven’t explored. Read on to find out more about the choices that you have.
The law varies greatly
The laws and regulations which govern the burial and disposal of your pet, will depend on your state and most importantly local laws and regulations.
While you will be legally able to bury your pet at a special cemetery in all 50 states, whether it’s legal to bury a pet on your property will differ by state, county and municipality.
So before you attempt to bury a pet on your land or any property private or the public, you should fully research and understand all of the laws that pertain to the property which you want to use.
Here are a few state laws that govern this issue of burying your pet at home, that you may not know. As with federal and state laws, in a lot of states local and state regulations differ.
While the state laws should supersede the local ones, it is up to you to choose which ones you follow. If you do choose to bury your pet at home you should follow a few guidelines outlined later in this article.
Michigan- In Michigan by law residents are supposed/ must dispose of dead pets and animals that are not “intended for human consumption” within a 24-hour time frame. You also must bury the pet a least 2 feet deep and 2 ½ feet away from any other pet gravesites.
Missouri- In the state of Missouri, the governing body of animal corpses and disposal is the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is very different from most other states.
They consider pets to be in the same classification as livestock and call all the animal remains “solid waste”. If you want to bury them on your property you have to follow strict rules such as the body should be at least 50 feet from property lines, 300 feet from neighboring residences, and 300 feet from any sort of fresh water source.
New York– A few years ago in the state of New York, they allowed you to be buried with your pet or your pet to be buried next to you in public cemeteries. Before this and still, in many states including New Jersey, they do not allow pets to be buried in the same place as humans. The reason for this is it is against public health codes.
Ohio- The State of Ohio does have state laws that pet owners are encouraged to follow. Pet owners should bury their animals below 2 feet but make sure that it’s not beneath the water table.
Also, landfills are supposed to accept the bodies of pets where many other states they will not. Though the State says they are supposed to accept local laws and businesses still may turn them away.
Texas- The great state of Texas surprisingly does not have any rules about this and you may bury your pet on any land that you own or have permission to do so. Texas also does not have any laws that you must disclose this to anyone trying to purchase the property.
Washington- The laws which govern the disposal of dead animals in the state of Washington, strangely specify what constitutes a “dead animal” but do not include fish and all other aquatic animals in the category of “animal”. It also states that the pet’s owner must dispose of the dead animal’s body within 72 hours.
Should I bury my pet in the backyard?
Growing up I lost two cats and a dog, all of which are still buried in my parent’s backyard. It just seemed the obvious thing to do, especially when given the price list for other means of disposal from the vet.
But should you be doing it?
It all depends on where you live, how you dispose of it, and how your pet has died. The backyard burial may seem like the easiest and most respectful way to take care of your pet’s remains but it could be dangerous for other pets, wildlife, and the water supply.
For the most part in the US unless you live in the countryside it will be hard to bury your pet on your property.
If you are sure that your pet has died of natural causes after getting the OK from the vet and checking with local laws, then burying it in your backyard is not a problem as long as you follow proper guidelines when burying them.
One issue is that most pets are put to sleep with an extremely concentrated amount of drugs and anesthetics. This lets them drift off to sleep and gives them a very peaceful death, but it leaves behind large amounts of that drug in their system. The term for this is called euthanasia, which actually means “good death”.
The most common drug that is used in America is pentobarbital. It is a very effective drug that can linger in the corpse of your pet for up to a year. If this gets into the water supply or an animal ingests this, sickness can occur but is rarely deadly. This being said, it’s a risk that needs to be minimized.
Another issue that can arise from a burial in the backyard is if your pet dies of a disease. This again could be spread to other animals or even people through ingestion or the water supply.
The chances of this have decreased due to vaccinations, but viruses like parvovirus can still occur and spread between dogs in particular quite easily. So make sure that if you are going to bury your pet in the backyard that the vet has run the required tests.
If unsure, just ask them about the risks.
How do I bury my pet myself?
So if you have chosen to bury your pet in your backyard and it is safe, here are the steps below that you can follow to ensure a safe and respectful burial.
Although some of these steps may seem like common sense they have been included as in a time of grief, they may be forgotten or overlooked.
- Check to see if he/she is still alive- You should really check for a pulse, look and feel to see if they are still breathing. Your pet may just be in trouble and not actually dead. Many times pets, especially small ones can have a faint heartbeat that is barely detectable to us. Call your veterinarian, to get further information on your pet to confirm. To feel for the pulse on a dog or cat check the inner thigh and use two fingers, (not your thumb) to check. Check for about a minute to be sure.
- Speed is of the essence.- Dead bodies start to decompose right away, so the faster the burial the better, within a day is best. The best place to store the body would be in the freezer is you have space for it. Likely you have taken your pet to the vet already, and they may have the right facilities to store him/her while you prepare the grave.
- Tell all that are close to pet.- Pets are not only close to you, but also your friends and family who may also care about it as well. If possible, informing them and having them able to say goodbye is a good way for them to grieve. If you have children this can be even harder but it also can be a learning opportunity to talk about death and introduce them to this concept. Be sure to answer any questions your child has with honesty and don’t’ tell white lies. See my article on how to do this for more information.
- Other pets- If you have any other pets in the house showing them the body and giving them some time with the body may sound morbid but actually lets them grieve. It has been shown that some pets grieve just like us. I experience this with my pet cats who were siblings, one of which passed due to kidney failure.
- What are the local laws? – As discussed before, you need to see if it is even legal to do so in your area, state and local laws will dictate that.
- Decide on a place- Where in the backyard is the best place to do this? A lot of laws dictate how far from other properties that are adjacent to yours and how deep you must bury it. So, your option of places to bury in your yard may be limited. If it rules out your yard a friend’s property could also be an option.
- Utility Companies- Most properties have gas, internet, electricity, sewage, etc. These things have lines that run under and around your house a lot of these are not buried very deep and if you start to dig you may hit one which could cause a big issue for you and your neighbors. You can normally get access to plans through local government offices.
- Dig- It is best to dig the hole at least 3ft deep. This is done so that local wildlife can not smell it and get at the corpse. For the width slightly larger than the corpse or the container that it is in. (See step 12 for more details).
- Casket/Cover- You can make the casket, use a cloth or even a shoebox to place the animal in.
- Put the animal in the ground- Place the animals in a container or by itself into the ground. In fact, it is best if you actually place the animal in the ground without a container so that decomposition isn’t hindered and the other materials don’t get in the ecosystem. Of course, this depends on the material of the container.
- Ceremony/Wake- If you would like to, holding one of these can help you to process and grieve. This is very helpful for children as well, showing them this will also help them to understand what happens at the funeral for a human.
- Protect your pet- After you have gently covered your pet with a foot to two feet of soil, place a large flat stone over the grave. This will help deter any wild animals which may still smell the body despite the smell barrier. It’s an added precaution and will give you peace of mind that your pet will rest in eternal peace.
- Cover and add a Headstone/Memorial- After you have filled in the rest of the grave, you can make a headstone or simply just have a few stones around to mark where your pets lay. Some people even plant a tree on top of the grave to memorialize their pets, this is what my family always did.
Pet Cemetery burials
If you can’t bury your pet on your own, you can always choose to bury them at a cemetery. While some states have many options others do not. Some things to think about when choosing a pet cemetery if you’re lucky to have choices are:
- Price- Since it is something of a niche market some of these cemeteries are quite expensive so check first. The final price is, of course, sometimes a down to what you choose. Do they charge maintenance fees? Are there rules for the shape and style of gravestones?
- Location- Do you want to visit your pet often or at all? Choosing a location that is convenient may be the most important thing. You may even want to choose cremation if this is the issue. See my article here on pet cremation for more details.
- Professionalism- Pet cemeteries are fairly new. While a regular cemetery will most likely be there forever sometimes pet cemeteries have been sold, if this happens you want to make sure that it stays a pet cemetery. Check the contract before you sign for a plot.
- Type of burial- Do you want your own plot or your pet to be buried with others in a group burial? You could even have a mausoleum or crypt.
Where should I store my pet until I can bury them?
The best thing to do is to bury your pet immediately, but if you simply can’t bury your pet right away, it is recommended to keep your pet in a cool dry place.
The freezer is the best place, but be sure to keep it away from food meant for human consumption. If you can place your pet into an airtight Tupperware container this is the ideal, but only really works for smaller animals.
If its body is frozen you can also, in theory, keep it there for as long as you choose before burial.
Should I bury my pet or cremate them? Or both?
This is a hard choice for many people and often when our pets dies we think about backyard burials as the only option.
Nowadays, cremation has become a more common and popular choice for people’s pets. There are many reasons for this, for one burying your pet is not always practical.
Whether it is because you don’t have a backyard or there isn’t a pet cemetery. Perhaps there is one, but the cemetery may be far away and not accessible. It may also be out of your price range. In some places in America, the ground freezes for months at a time and you cannot even dig into the ground if you tried. So you would have to store your pet until it thaws.
Pet cremation services are now even more common than pet cemeteries. They have them in most towns and cities. They offer services that will pick your pet up any day at any time.
These services are usually very reasonable and professional. They will also cremate any pet that you have and are not restricted to just cats and dogs, you can have any pet cremated.
With cremation you would be able to have your pets remains close to you at all times. With this option, if you wanted you could still bury them or scatter their ashes if done safely.
What are the different types of cremations?
There are three basic types of cremations that you can choose from for your pet. While they are all similar there are subtle differences and some options are more personal than others.
The private cremation is when your pet is put in the cremation chamber with other pets but the sections are divided. A personal cremation is when your pet is all alone in the chamber. The last is a communal cremation and it involves having your pet in with other pets.
For reference, see my article on cremation for reptiles, which goes into the different types of pet cremation options.
Can I be buried with my pet?
For a long time, it was against the laws for those that wanted to be buried next to their pets.
Pennsylvania was the first state to allow owners to be buried next to their pets. Most states still do not allow people and pets to be buried together or the laws don’t address the issue at all. Virginia was the second state and New York was another to allow this type of burial. It is being brought up more now in all the states but hasn’t progressed.
These states have special cemeteries or split up the cemeteries into sections, animal plots, humans, and combined.
If you want to rest your remains with those of your pet you should make sure the plot you are going to purchase is in an appropriate cemetery. Also leaving behind these wishes in a legal document will ensure no doubt is left in the minds of your loved ones of what you wanted.
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