Helping a client determine when to euthanize their pet is one of the hardest conversations veterinary professionals encounter throughout their career. At such a sensitive time, it can be a bit uneasy for veterinary hospital staff to educate clients on the different aftercare options available.
Few owners may choose to keep their pet’s body to bury it in a meaningful area, but most pet owners elect cremation, a well-known service that provides the option of group cremation or individual cremation in which the pet’s ash remains are returned to the owner for a keepsake. However, a lesser known aftercare has recently become another choice for owners and could potentially be a better alternative to traditional cremation. It is called aquamation.
Tyler Stewart, President and CEO of Heavenly Paws Pet Aquamation in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, has been providing the service of pet aquamation since 2015. After losing his Golden Retriever, his interest in aftercare for pets piqued and he started researching it, eventually leading to the position of CEO of his own company.
His facility is equipped to provide not only aquamation, but euthanasia services as well for owners that don’t want the memory of their pet passing at home or at a veterinarian’s office. As with most aftercare providers, he advertises a wide selection of items of remembrance including jewelry, glass sculptures, paw prints and more. Stewart’s background in service generates a source of pure client satisfaction as well as honor and respect.
What is aquamation?
Aquamation is the trade name for alkaline hydrolysis, a process that was first patented by Amos Herbert Hobson, a farmer in 1888 who was exploring how to separate the nitrogenous material from bones to use as fertilizer. He discovered the possibility to use the process for animal disposition when filing his patent. It was also used in the 90’s during the mad cow disease outbreak to sterilize the bovine bodies of the deceased, as cremation sent the disease airborne and burial allowed access of the disease to the water.
Alkaline hydrolysis has been used by pharmaceutical industries as a way of sterilizing pathogens and medications to make them safe for disposal in water treatments. Since then, aquamation has evolved into a more commercial space, allowing 23 states to legally use the operation on humans, and every state to use for pets.
When asked how to explain aquamation to a client, Stewart describes the process, “Aquamation is an alternative to cremation. The way it works is we’ll place your baby into an alkali bath. Alkali are the salts from the earth that would help the body to break down if buried naturally. What remains is the same ashes received from a traditional cremation.”
Sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide are added to the bath based on tissue weight. If the ratio is too low, the bones will still be considerably hard and difficult to break down. Gentle water, flow, temperature and alkalinity are used in combination to stimulate the breakdown of organic materials. After the body has gone through the process of aquamation, the remains are left out to dry and then put into a device called a cremulator. This device granulates the remains, delivering 20% more ashes than flame–based cremation. And what is left is a delicate ash powder returned to the owner for commemoration.
What makes aquamation a preferred alternative to traditional cremation?
As a new option for aftercare, clients can be hesitant to try something unfamiliar if knowledge regarding the alternative hasn’t been disclosed. However, when introduced to the opportunity of aquamation, Stewart says, “Some of our clients are drawn to the fact that more of the ashes are returned, some of our clients just appreciate how it’s more environmentally friendly and sustainable, and a good chunk of our clients just don’t like the idea of burning their pet, especially when there’s an alternative.”
The image of a pet being incinerated is not the last memory a client should have of their treasured companion. Aquamation brings closure and offers a comforting and pleasant thought for pet owners who choose this option.
Ashes from traditional cremation are primarily the mineral remains from the bone, along with some ash from added items such as toys, blankets or collars. The consistency of ashes from flame-based cremation resembles tiny bone fragments and is usually gray in color due to the carbon discoloration from burning. Ash produced from aquamation is of powder consistency and can range in color from white to tan, furnishing a more aesthetically pleasing appearance to owners.
Comparing cost, aquamation is reasonably competitive with traditional cremation, thus giving owners a more considerate choice by providing a more pleasant visual in their mind of how their pet’s body is being cared for. Besides providing 20% more ash than traditional cremation, aquamation is also more gentle. And because there are no gaseous emissions, it is environmentally friendly—completely eliminating the risk of pollution. During traditional cremation, some inorganic mineral remains are lost, but with aquamation, the system flows gently, like a stream, which allows more final mineral remains to be in tact at the end of the process. The gentle process of aquamation allows for even the smallest of animals, like guinea pigs or snakes, to produce a significant amount of ash to present to the owner.
How do owners know they are getting back their personal pet’s remains?
Partnering veterinarians are stocked with ID tags and each tag has a number that is designated to a specific pet. The veterinarian can show the client the tag being placed on the pet’s paw at the time of euthanasia to evade any doubt the pet owner may have. If the client brings the pet directly to the facility, the client can be shown the same visual of the tag being placed on the pet’s paw; however, depending on the client’s emotional strength, some clients prefer not to see this action carried out. The tag is attached to the pet and is verified at every stage of the cycle. The number on the tag is confirmed when the pet is prepped and when paw prints and fur clippings are made. Prior to the pet being placed into the machine, the tag is validated again and also when the pet is removed from the machine. The tag remains intact during the aquamation process and emerges unblemished after the cycle is complete.
Supportive hardware like pins or plates, which the pet may have had in their body, can also be returned back to the owner upon request. As a result of these items being inorganic in nature, they are also intact and flawless after aquamation, similar to the ID tag. For those owners who opt not to receive these items back, Stewart has started a collection and plans to contact a nearby veterinary school to contribute them for research and practice.
With traditional cremation, some owners request that the pet’s collar, favorite toy or blanket be cremated with the pet, but with aquamation, these items aren’t broken down during the process due to their inorganic nature. Stewart mentioned that, if a client requests these items be processed with the pet, he will put the items on top of the machine directly over the pet to still provide an honorary option. Any linens, beds or food that the owner does not want to receive back are donated.
Since anything inorganic is essentially untouched with aquamation, this has allowed Stewart to see multiple interesting things, like underwear that a pet has eaten. He’s also seen a full Sunday edition of the AJC still in the plastic that a 120 pound German Shepherd consumed. Regularly, bits of toy and tennis ball are found along with baby clothes, socks and more. Even more fascinating, things like bone cancers and entities of that manner can also be identified, providing an extra level of support to clients that can’t afford a necropsy, giving them closure knowing the possible cause of death.
Owners sometimes have the desire to watch their pet be placed in a crematorium and some crematories are equipped to allow for that. At Stewart’s facility, he does his best to coordinate with the client so that they may be able to watch the pet be placed in the machine or place the pet themselves if they wish to do so. Aquamation is about a 20–22 hour cycle but Stewart is happy to work with owners if they want to be present when the cycle has been completed, although no one has taken that option as of yet. Heavenly Paws maintains an open door policy and strives to deliver to clients what they need to gain closure.
How can more people become aware of aquamation?
For veterinarians, the easiest approach for clients to develop interest in aquamation is to add the option of aquamation to release forms that clients are already filling out.
“If the client asks about it, give them a brochure, have a brief conversation with them, and that’s really all it takes,” says Stewart.
Veterinarians also have direct relationships with specific crematories and often, they won’t allow another crematory service a client, even if requested. Stewart hopes that every veterinarian provides complete transparency with aftercare by offering all the options, including cremation and aquamation, and simply wants clients to be educated about every opportunity available.
Enlightening pet owners on all the choices they have to remember their pet must be something that veterinary professionals can feel confident about. In order to give owners the closure needed to progress through grieving, our responsibility as veterinary professionals is to prepare owners for the inevitable and then guide them to the perfect way to honor and remember their pet.+