BALTIMORE — When Richard Thompson’s wife of 40 years was nearing the end of her life at a Baltimore County hospital, he couldn’t fathom living alone. His two beagles had died unexpectedly earlier this year, but a new rescue beagle named Tucker was the godsend he needed.
Thompson, 73, adopted Tucker from Beagle Rescue of Southern Maryland in May. The beagle has been a confidant for the retired school teacher since his wife died in June.
“This dog was a miracle because he was there. He loved to be with us. He’s such a sweet dog,” Thompson said. “I put him up on her bed. She met him. She said, ‘You made a good choice.’”
For people like Thompson, pet parenting is sacred. Their animals are much-loved family members who provide support across many stages of life — and as ownership grows and the roles of pets evolve, so does demand for their death care.
The 5-year-old heavyset beagle appeared tuckered out on Tuesday as he waddled into the Dulaney Valley Pet Loss Center — a new pet funeral home that opened in September in Timonium. The pair came to check out Dulaney because Thompson plans to use it for Tucker one day.
The pet death care business is growing exponentially, in proportion to what’s happening with pet ownership and pet expenditures, said Coleen Ellis, who was hired by Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens as a consultant for the pet loss center.
“I think the need has always been there, but pet parents have pushed for it more lately,” she said. “I think this is the one area that was probably lacking for all these years.”
Ellis is an expert on pet loss and trends. She opened the first standalone pet funeral home in the U.S. in Indianapolis in 2004. It provides the experiential parts of a funeral without a cemetery or a crematory, she said.
People who consider themselves pet parents, as opposed to pet owners, often believe that if it’s good enough for people, then it’s absolutely perfect for pets, Ellis said.
“I think it’s gotten to a point where a lot of people have said, ‘I did all these things while they were alive. I want to make sure their final moments here, their final walk is exactly like they lived — memorable, beautiful, special and unique, just like they were,” she said.
The national pet industry exceeded $123.6 billion in sales last year, the highest in history, according to the American Pet Products Association.
This was the second consecutive record- setting year for the industry, following a banner year in 2020, which for the first time exceeded $100 billion in sales, according to the APPA. There were spending increases in every category including death care and grief supplies.
Purchasing something to memorialize a pet upon the pet’s death is something more pet owners say they plan to do, according to the APPA National Pet Owners Survey.
The APPA reported, for example, that 52% of dog owners in 2018 said they would purchase something upon the death of their pet, while 2020 saw 61% and, for cat owners, 42% to 57% for the same years.
The 2020 survey showed that most people would buy an urn for ashes or a memorial stone for the home or yard and caskets. Just under 10% of pet owners say they would purchase memorial jewelry upon the death of their pet.
“Anecdotally, what I’ve watched over the 20 years since I’ve been very focused and dedicated to respectful and dignified pet loss services is the pet parents step up and say, ‘I want more,’” Ellis said.
The percentage of U.S. homes with pets reached an estimated 70% in 2022, according to the APPA. Ellis attributes an increase in pet ownership to millennials and baby boomers with their “empty nest syndromes,” referring to the grief parents sometimes feel when their children move out.
“They weren’t ready to be empty — so they got a pet,” she said. “Then you’ve got the millennials, who waited for a while to have children. And so you’ve got both of those, which represent our largest population demographics in our country. You’ve got both of them who embraced it.”
Dulaney Valley Pet Loss Center is the latest addition to the Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens pet memorial services. The cemetery opened its first pet memorial garden in 1967, called Pet Haven.
It then expanded to Pet Sanctuary in 2010, another burial pet garden, featuring a bronze statue of a golden retriever and a tabby cat as its centerpiece.
That same year, Faithful Friends opened, where owners can be buried with their pets. The animals are buried separately and placed beneath their owners’ feet.
“Over the years, and particularly since the pandemic, we have seen growth exponentially in this area as pets have become more a part of families, and now, their owners want to celebrate their lives,” said Amy S. Shimp, who has been the cemetery’s general manager since 2007.
The cemetery handles about 100 burials per year and has more than 4,000 pets buried that have come from all over the state, Shimp said.
Dulaney’s pet loss center offers amenities including transportation and cremation.
Ten pets at the cemetery belong to Thompson, and it will also be Tucker’s final resting place.
“Anybody who has ever had a dog or cat would agree with me that they change your lives,” Thompson said. “There’s a bond between a person and a pet that is very difficult to quantify, but it’s something very special. When I look back at all the animals that I’ve had, each one of them was different, but they were all unique in their own way.”