Britons struggle to cover costs when pets die as bills soar

The cost of living crisis hasn’t just sparked an increase in the number of people struggling to pay for vet treatment, pet food and animal day care. It has also left many pet owners facing a cruel and costly dilemma when their beloved animal dies.

A pet’s death may now be one of the most expensive times for bereft owners, particularly if they live in a gardenless flat or rental property.

When my beloved hamster Maisie died, I faced the trauma of figuring out what to do with her body.

The experience was a distressing rigmarole. Yet it’s certainly not one I’m alone in facing. Online fundraising sites are full of grieving pet owners relying on the kindness of strangers.

Freya Liberty from Manchester had her dog cremated and was able to receive her ashes after raising £600 on JustGiving.

Mabel was the oldest resident of Manchester and Cheshire Dogs Home when Freya decided to adopt her. She knew Mabel’s seniority would incur additional health costs but it was something Freya had financially prepared for.

However, six months down the line, her pet insurance company cancelled Mabel’s policy, saying that it did not insure American akitas. Other insurers quoted Freya premiums at about £120 a month on account of Mabel’s age. It was cheaper for Freya to pay for Mabel’s medical bills out of her own pocket.

Freya Liberty and Mabel the dog for Money feature
Freya Liberty’s insurer told her it no longer covered American akitas such as her rescue dog Mabel. Photograph: Freya Liberty

Yet Freya couldn’t have anticipated the cost of living crisis coinciding with Mabel being put to sleep. “We wouldn’t have done the fundraiser had it not been for the energy bill increase in April,” she says.

Costs included a £250 cremation plus a £190 vet bill, and a couple of smaller charges for mementoes such as paw prints.

Freya put as much as she could on to a credit card but was £100 short. She decided to set up a JustGiving page to see if family and friends would contribute.

“Just before I set up the page, I felt as if I’d personally failed my amazing dog, who’d kept me going throughout the pandemic. She was my absolute comfort. It felt awful that I was sitting there considering whether we could get her cremated,” she says.

The page ended up raising six times the intended amount. The £100 that Freya used from the fundraiser enabled her to bring Mabel’s ashes home. It has provided time for Freya to grieve for her pet properly before she scatters her ashes on the Welsh coast – a spot that Mabel particularly enjoyed. The other £500 went to Manchester and Cheshire Dogs Home.

My hamster Maisie came into my life as an affordable pet. I bought her from a local pet shop in Hackney, east London, for £12.

The cost of her upkeep was never a worry. Yet, as she took her final breath at the end of last year, I was hit with the potential cost of disposing of her body. I lived in a one-bedroom rented flat in London with no garden.

Molly Raycraft’s hamster Maisie for Money feature
Molly Raycraft bought her hamster Maisie from a local pet shop in Hackney for £12. Photograph: Molly Raycraft

A ring-round of local vets indicated it would cost £125 upwards to cremate an animal weighing under 1kg such as Maisie. A burial in one of London’s dedicated pet cemeteries was another option but worked out at £320 upwards. Taxidermy – not an option I wanted to consider – was no cheaper, totalling £175 upwards.

Burying a dead pet in a public park or forest was a common conclusion among the many people on internet forums facing the same dilemma. However, this is illegal and carries the risk of a £5,000 fine.

A more harrowing option was to simply bin the body, costing nothing, but creating the cruel imagery of foxes mauling at the corpse of a beloved family member.

A low-cost and time-sensitive decision had to be made. Maisie was placed in an iPhone box alongside her favourite swatch of old dressing gown. I said my goodbyes and put her coffin, wrapped in Sainsbury’s carrier bags, into my foodless freezer-turned-morgue. It gave me time to make cheaper arrangements.

Eventually, Maisie was transported to my mother’s house, where she was laid to rest in a picturesque Kentish garden with a body count of about 30 rodents.

My freezer and delayed burial approach is a less practical option for people with bigger pets, forcing their hand to pay cremation fees.

Mabel’s story is one of the rare fundraisers to have a positive outcome.

Many donation pages for pet cremation have no contributions. Owners can’t collect the ashes, leaving them with a painful sense of failing their pet in the fallout of the current crisis.

“We have seen an increase in this area recently,” says Diane James, the head of the pet bereavement support service at Blue Cross. The pet charity has set up several pet food banks and is offering low-cost and free veterinary treatment at its animal hospitals, which includes cremation if the pet has been treated on-site.

The vet world is also feeling the strain. “A veterinary business isn’t a particularly profitable one and comes with many stresses, hence why larger corporates are taking over practices rather than them running independently,” says Anna Foreman, the in-house vet at Everypaw Pet Insurance.

Amid this general industry price rise, there have been cases of exploitative overcharging and negligence. Some owners report that, having paid for cremations, they ended up with pets being chucked into incinerators, and the ashes returned containing a concoction of remains.

However, even the majority of crematoriums that are doing their best to minimise their profit margins to help bereft customers have been forced to increase their prices to stay afloat amid soaring energy bills.

“My fuel prices have doubled,” says Sue Hemmings, an undertaker at Pets At Rest on the Isle of Wight and a member of the Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria. “Obviously, our biggest outgoing is the cost of gas because that’s how we cremate animals. All my suppliers across the board have increased their prices, from flowers and cardboard boxes to tissue, caskets and delivery charges. Not one thing has remained the same price as it was this time last year.”

Hemmings offers payment plans, which have led to people paying as little as £5 a week out of their universal credit to pay for individual cremation. It enables them to bring their beloved pet home. Communal cremation is a cheaper option but fewer opt for this as the ashes aren’t returned.

The reality is that many pet owners have been plunged into financial difficulties that could not have been predicted at the beginning of their pets’ lives.

Demand for pet-friendly rental properties increased by 120% between July 2020 and July 2021, reflecting the sharp rise in pet ownership during the coronavirus pandemic, according to data from the property website Rightmove.

The government has responded to this by issuing a model tenancy agreement, which discourages blanket bans on pets. It is expected to be supported by more mandatory measures in the renters’ reform bill in the spring of 2023, which should mean more pets in rentals.

However, a combination of reduced access to affordable burial and cremation options, and the rising cost of living, mean a pet’s death may, for some, spark an increase in debt and some difficult decisions.

The Guardian