When a beloved pet passes, the reality of disposing of its remains … remains.

Until recently, people were faced with either burial or cremation. Now there are more options.

Cremation comes with some expense and is usually provided through a veterinarian’s office. Some people question, however, if the cremains they get back are truly those of their pet or are they part of a mass cremation.

While there may be a few unscrupulous crematoria around, most now ensure pets go into separate vessels, though many vessels may go through the process of cremation at the same time.

Burial used to be simple. Now it is not necessarily so. Oh sure, a hamster or goldfish buried in the backyard to help children with understanding the end of life is still possible. One might even get away with burying a dog or cat.

With larger pets, burial without a marker or a location noted on a property map may result in turmoil for a new property owner digging say, a new garden plot.

Most homeowners could not identify animal remains from human remains. People’s imagination may run amok when they encounter bones and they assume the worst.

Today, there are additional options for dealing with pet remains. One is composting.

Large animal producers, especially dairy owners, have been composting whole cows for decades. Managed properly, an animal weighing a half-ton can be rendered to teeth and perhaps a few bigger bones in 10 to 14 days. The emphasis there is on properly managing the compost pile for such speedy results. That is no easy task to the uninitiated.

Marketed by various names, there are some newer techniques gaining popularity. One process involves alkaline hydrolysis. The process is essentially dissolving the remains in a very strong base solution (think lye for opening clogged drains), usually in a combination of sodium and potassium hydroxides.

Why not acidic solutions? In old films, the bad guys always go to an accomplice’s mechanic shop and dump a body they need to dispose of in a vat of engine cleaning acids. Chalk this up to creative liberty. Acids don’t do the job as well as bases do.

To perhaps lessen the thoughts of “Fluffy” going through the first phase of saponification, these processes are billed as using “water-based solutions.” Well, yes, the bases are in a solution with water but trust a basic chemistry course and know these are very strong chemicals at work.

Alkaline hydrolysis is touted as being much more environmentally friendly when compared to cremation with natural gas. The process is said to use 90 percent less energy than cremation. Maybe, but the industrial production and safe transportation of these bases — that also must be eventually disposed of properly — uses a lot of energy and a lot of water. The machinery itself is usually based on size, custom fabricated on demand, made mostly of stainless steel, and requires both significant electricity and water to operate.

For most pets, the process takes less than a day. Separate vessels ensure the bones are retained and the animals do not mix anywhere but in the solution that safely goes down the drain. The bones and teeth are then dried for most of a week before being ground into a fine powder. All this takes energy, too. Prices vary among vendors. Customers obtain the final delivery within about 10 days usually.

Alkaline hydrolysis equipment is expensive and has sprouted a franchise package for those wondering about a new business venture.


Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email cpowell@vetmed.wsu.edu.

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