For pet owners who are put off by the thought of having their loved one incinerated, Tucson aquamation offers a water-based alternative.
TUCSON, AZ — When she graduated from veterinarian school in 2011, Dr. Kellie Barrett never imagined she'd feel that her "calling" was to focus on pet hospice and home euthanasia, while offering an eco-friendly pet remains disposal alternative to cremation or burial: aquamation.
Barrett, the only veterinarian in Arizona to offer aquamation, says many pet owners across the state can be put off by the idea of having their furry loved one incinerated. Aquamation offers a "gentle," water-based alternative to dispose of a pet's body.
Barrett performs the process herself at Kindred Spirits Pet Services, which she runs with the help of her husband, Jim, who holds an MBA and manages the financial side of the business.
What Is Aquamation And How Is It Done?
Barrett describes aquamation as alkaline hydrolysis, or a process where flowing water (about 95 percent) interacts with potassium and sodium (the other 5 percent) in an aquamation machine where pets' bodies are laid in separate stainless steel baskets.
In about 18 hours, the alkaline hydrolysis "turns all the body back into its natural building blocks like amino acids, sugars, things like that," Barrett said.
What's left for Barrett to return to pet owners is bones, which are then dried and ground up into a powder, similar to cremation remains but more powdery.
The water used in the aquamation process enters the wastewater system, but Barrett says that's a good thing.
"Most of our wastewater is acidic, so it's helping to neutralize that," she explained.
But can the disposal of remains of a pet that had chemicals in its system — whether from medical treatments such as chemotherapy or euthanasia — at the time of aquamation truly be described as "eco-friendly"?
"This process neutralizes all those things, any disease, any medications, things like that," Barrett said.
While aquamation is still relatively rare in the United States and Europe, it was previously used on cows that had mad cow disease, because it was the only way to dispose of the animals' remains without spreading their sickness.
Another eco-friendly aspect of aquamation versus burial, according to Barrett, is the lack of methane gas emissions associated with burial. The process also stops harmful chemicals that might be in the animal's body from leaking into the environment, as can happen when a pet is buried.
The aquamation machine at Barrett's business also uses far less energy than if she were to ramp up a crematory
"The actual energy we're using is 1/10th the amount it takes for crematories to run," Barrett said. "Hopefully, that will end up impacting the environment in a positive way because we're not using that energy, and we're not putting gases off into the air."
She is quick to guarantee that aquamation pet owners will get their own cat's or dog's silty remains back and not anyone else's — something crematories can't always promise.
"Our aquamation process is truly individualized because we can compartmentalize our [stainless steel] baskets that go into the machine," Barrett said.
With flame cremation, the animals aren't always the only ones in the machine.
"There's still the airflow," Barrett said, "and everything can distribute those ashes between animals unless they have dividers."
Barrett's aquamation machine can accommodate two baskets at once, up to a 400-pound load. She has performed aquamation on pigs from the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary when requested. For loading heavy animals like those into the machine, Jim helps her hoist the creature in, or Barrett uses a crane or a swing.
If the machine is at full capacity when Barrett takes in a newly dead animal for aquamation, the body is refrigerated but never frozen.
"We do not freeze our animals. We keep them refrigerated just to slow the decomposition process after the animal has died. And there's something about that that I think also is a positive to animal owners, because thinking that their animal gets frozen bothers some people," Barrett said, adding that animals are typically refrigerated for less than a day until the machine's next cycle starts.
Barrett says aquamation costs are comparable to those of cremating a pet. The cost depends on the size of the animal, but $215 will get owners of dogs 30 to 90 pounds a standard, eco-friendly bamboo or brass urn with the pet's paw print.
"Most of the crematories when they give the pets back to their clients, they're in plastic containers, and we don't use any plastics," Barrett said.
Although Kindred Spirits currently has only one location, in Tucson, Barrett says she met several people from Phoenix at The Tucson Dog magazine's Dogtoberfest last October and told them about aquamation. Some wanted to use her aquamation service when their pets die, "whether it be we meet them halfway or they bring the pet here," Barrett said.
She doesn't limit her services to only those in Tucson and Phoenix either.
"I'm more than happy to take pets from other areas of Arizona if they can get them here," she said.
Most of her new clients find Barrett online when searching for home euthanasia services, while others are referrals from local veterinarian clinics.
How Did She Get Here?
Another focus of Kindred Spirits Pet Services is hospice care for animals with a terminal diagnosis, a turn she didn't expect as a new veterinarian back in 2011.
"My main focus was I wanted to be a shelter veterinarian and help as many pets as I could find homes," Barrett said, so her first four or five years of veterinary practice were for the Humane Society.
"And then I went into private practice, which focused on spays and neuters and helping people that were more of a low income, so we were trying to help them keep their pet," she said.
She also served in nonprofit mobile veterinary clinics in New Mexico and Arizona.
Barrett really found her calling in the veterinary world, however, after her niece died of cancer.
"I saw the hospice care that she received. [Also] just going to veterinary conferences and hearing more about end-of-life focus," Barrett said. "I had a pulling, a sense of purpose for myself that this was where I needed to be."
The loss of a grandparent only increased the pull toward pets nearing the end of their lives.
"It's so hard to lose a pet … but now my focus is toward helping people through their losses, and helping give them a peace of mind that end of life — although hard — can be [something] peaceful and beautiful that they get to give to their pet," Barrett said.
Barrett's pet hospice services closely resemble that of hospice provided to humans, with an aim to keep the animal comfortable until death. But many pet owners haven't heard of hospice services for animals, said Barrett, who also gets pet-hospice referrals from other local veterinarians.
When a pet gets a terminal diagnosis resulting from chronic kidney disease or cancer, some people feel they need to have their loved one euthanized right away.
"There's not enough focus on palliative care and hospice, and sometimes [the pet's] quality of life is not bad just because they've gotten a terminal diagnosis," Barrett said. "They still have time to thrive and be with their family."
During pet hospice care, Barrett comes to the client's home and helps the family caregivers with challenges related to the pet's mobility, medications and comfort factors. Her mission is to maintain a good quality of life for the animal until the pet dies naturally or until the family says it's time to let the animal go through euthanasia.
Barrett says there are pet-only medications to help ensure the pet's comfort while undergoing hospice. Rarely, opioids such as morphine or fentanyl are used on pets in hospice, just as they are in human hospice.
"Since we're having this overall opioid crisis with people, it's actually limiting the medication that we're able to get for the pets," Barrett said.
But, she says, most pet owners "don't want to see their pet comatose. They still want them aware of them and their surroundings. It is an option for hospice to get those opioids that are available to us, but a lot of people are opting to humanely euthanize before they're needing those really significant drugs."
Though she only offers end-of-life veterinary services and not wellness exams, diagnostics or vaccines, Barrett does quality-of-life exams on pets and advises pet owners medically.
"I never tell them, 'You need to put down your pet.' I give them options; and it's really the caregivers, the owners, that make the final decision after a quality-of-life exam," Barrett said.
Once a caregiver decides it's time to euthanize a terminally ill pet, Barrett specializes in home euthanasia at the family's residence, if that's the family's preferred location. She has a "comfort room" at her office that looks like a living room where pets can be euthanized, too.
First, Barrett gives the family as much time as they need with their pet. Next, she completely sedates the animal.
"They're basically under a plane of anesthesia before I do the euthanasia drug," she said, adding "that's important because people feel more comforted" that their loved one is truly asleep at the time of its passing.
Afterward, Barrett doesn't rush when it comes to taking the pet for aquamation. Some families want a few moments or longer with their loved one's body, so she might step outside or even leave for a while if needed.
"I try to move at the caregiver's pace, because everyone grieves differently and everybody has to work through their process," Barrett said.
Some families even hold a memorial service for their animal between the home euthanization and the time Barrett returns to collect the body for aquamation.
For the pets whose owners didn't want their animal's remains returned to them after aquamation, the Barretts and their children hold their own service on their acre of land and spread the animal's powdered remains.