What’s Aquamation? An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Pet Cremation

My wife and I opened Peaceful Pets Aquamation because cremation is bad for the environment -- and it's an idea that's stuck in the past.

dogedit  |  Sep 4th 2014

Before you begin reading this, beware. Knowing how your pet is treated after he has passed on is not pleasant — in fact, it’s just plain horrifying. My wife, Susan, and I discovered it quite by accident, years ago. The silver lining is that it spurred us into action. We decided not just to offer something new to pet aftercare, but to actually change it. To revolutionize it. To get it out of the archaic cave it’s existed in for the past 50 years and to bring it into the light of the 21st century. What that meant was that we created a company that would treat all pets the way we want our very own pets to be treated.

But let’s rewind. I had a successful career in television for 30 years. Having finally burned out, I wanted a new challenge. I know, most middle-aged guys are getting a sports car, but I take on pet aftercare. Go figure.

Around that time, we lost Scout, truly one of the greatest dogs we’d ever had. She was one of those special dogs some of us are lucky to get in our lifetime. Unfortunately, she developed lymphoma when she was only six, but with the help of chemotherapy, she got another really good year.

That year gave us time to reflect on what would happen after she died. And, I can tell you, it was sad. Years earlier, we had stumbled upon a crematory loading their truck outside a vet’s office. Pets’ bodies stuffed in black garbage bags were tossed into the back of an open pickup truck and covered with a tarp to be driven around in the middle of a Los Angeles summer.

As we’ve since learned, that is not unusual. Then we made the mistake of investigating how most crematories operate — it’s not that hard to find out. Our research led us to how harmful to the environment cremation is. When we thought about it, it made sense. Fossil fuels are used to incinerate the bodies, which creates carbon monoxide, just like a car’s exhaust. And what happens to the drugs in a dog’s body, like chemotherapy drugs, when they are burned? Do they poison the atmosphere? We had no alternative and didn’t know what else to do. Instead of honoring our dog’s life, we felt we’d let her down.

What also happened around that time, but sadly too late for Scout, was that a friend told us about aquamation, a 100-percent green and far more dignified alternative to cremation.

So what is aquamation?

Aquamation is a natural process called alkaline hydrolysis. Using water flow, temperature, and alkalinity, it is more like natural decomposition than any other method. It’s actually what occurs when a body is buried; it just accelerates the process. Your body even uses alkaline hydrolysis while you’re alive — it’s how your intestines break down food into the nutrients that you need to survive.

It all sounded great, but we wanted to know more. We found out that it wasn’t a new technology. In fact, it was already being used by some of the most respected and influential institutions in the world. UCLA, Duke, and the Mayo Clinic were just a few of the places alkaline hydrolysis was already the standard. And, as if we were being led into a new career, we learned that a smaller machine had just been developed. Aquamation was now available for the regular pet owner.

What is amazing about alkaline hydrolysis, and obviously why major medical facilities use it, is that it is totally green. We have young children, and that became a huge factor in attracting us to starting up a business. Unlike cremation, there are no toxic emissions and no contribution to greenhouse gases. It has a carbon footprint that is only one-tenth of what fire-based cremation produces.

What’s even more staggering is that it uses one-twentieth of the energy, cutting natural gas use and carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent and electricity by 66 percent. It is also mercury-free. Think about this: The amount of energy a crematory uses to incinerate a cat would heat your house for three days in minus-15-degree weather. The comparison isn’t even close.

There isn’t a better way to honor your pet than aquamation — to have it be a part of the circle of life. But, that didn’t solve all the problems that we found with pet aftercare. So we took the time and looked at every step of the process. How could we make the whole thing more dignified? These animals are part of our family and ending their life like this just left us cold.

That sadness then started to turn to anger: All of a sudden you realize that you are actually paying for them to treat your beloved pet like trash. You can’t blame veterinarians for using black garbage bags, or even freezers. No one has developed a bag that is impermeable to liquids and is more dignified (we’re working on one). Most vets have space problems and deceased pets do need to be stored properly, so freezers are a solution.

The first thing we did was to buy, customize, and refrigerate a truck. We weren’t going to transport pets in the back of a pickup truck or van. If we needed help getting them out of the vet’s office, we would use a stretcher, not rolling garbage cans or barrels like some vets do (I’m not making it up). We don’t have the space problems vets have so we bought a giant walk-in refrigerator, which is shelved.

No pet is crammed in or piled upon. We even take them out of the garbage bags. During every step, we asked ourselves, “Does this meet the bar for how we want our pet to be treated?”

Innovation drives change in the business world, but cremation has never needed to innovate. They were a monopoly. It’s common knowledge that veterinary medicine has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last 50 years. Cremation hasn’t really evolved, except that it can now burn pets more effectively. That’s not the kind of innovation we want. My family always cremated our pets because there wasn’t another choice. And, we’re as guilty as anyone else: If you only have one choice it’s easy to not ask the hard questions.

In early 2014 we opened Peaceful Pets Aquamation. What’s really amazing is that we feel more and more responsible for our clients’ pets with each passing day. When you treat someone’s family pet with dignity, you create a different kind of relationship with them. Crematories pick up their commodity and move on to the next. We make new friends. We give people closure or help them honor something important in their lives. I can’t tell you how rewarding that is. Crematories can always add aquamation machines, but they can’t manufacture respect and dignity. That’s our advantage, because that’s who we are.

Read related stories on Dogster:

About the author: Jerry is the founder, along with his wife, of Peaceful Pets Aquamation. For more information, check them out on Facebook, Google+, and YouTube.