Need for tighter rules on pet cremation services following Platinium saga: AWOs

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
The body of Gal Gal, a 16-year-old Japanese Spitz, at a pre-cremation ceremony on 7 September, 2018. (PHOTO: Pet Cremators Singapore)

Animal welfare organisations in Singapore are urging tighter rules on pet cremation services following the case of a dog that died at a controversial pet boarding facility and was reportedly cremated without its owner’s knowledge.

Among their proposed measures, the mandatory scanning of microchips in pets by service providers prior to cremation.

“Pet cremation companies should adhere to a set of protocols (outlined by the authorities) whereby they confirm pet ownership details, before processing a cremation request. This is one of the reasons why microchipping and licensing or registering one’s pet is important,” said Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) executive director Dr Jaipal Singh Gill.

Pet cremation service providers and pet boarding facilities have been in the media spotlight in the past two months, following the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA)’s investigation into Platinium Dogs Club after multiple allegations of animal negligence made by owners whose dogs were placed under its care.

The investigation saw 18 dogs and one rabbit taken into temporary custody after raids were conducted by the authorities on Platinium’s premises in late December. Prince, a seven-year-old Shetland sheepdog that was boarded at the facility, was not among them.

(Poster courtesy of Roderick Low/Facebook)

The missing pet sparked a weeklong search by volunteers and its 34-year-old owner Elaine Mao who flew back early from her vacation in Australia to join search efforts.

Preliminary investigations by the AVA later revealed that the dog had died under Platinium’s care and was cremated by an unnamed pet cremation service provider.

‘A great tragedy’

The announcement of Prince’s death came on the heel of an allegation made by a worker at Mobile Pet Cremation Services that three unidentified dogs were individually and mass cremated by the company. Only the pets’ names were given to Mobile Pet by a woman linked to Platinium’s address.

A 30-year-old woman, the operator of Platinium, was later arrested and released on bail two days later. The AVA told Yahoo News Singapore on Tuesday that its investigation is still ongoing and that the woman remains out on bail.

Describing the case as “a great tragedy”, Save Our Street Dogs (SOSD) Singapore president Dr Siew Tuck Wah, 39, said pet cremation companies should be “more vigilant” about suspected instances of abuse and report them to the authorities.

“In this case, it would have been very suspicious for several dogs to be sent for cremation by Platinum Dogs Club – without the owners (knowing),” he said.

At the same time, authorities should tighten licensing requirements and perform checks on pet cremation companies to ensure they comply with minimum standards of care, Dr Siew added.

Pet cremation service providers are not required to be licensed by the AVA, said the authority in response to media queries.

However, approval from the authority must be sought for AVA-licensed premises – pet shops or veterinary clinics, for instance – if they wish to conduct ancillary activities, such as animal cremation, in their premises.

Overview of pet cremation services

Currently, there are two pet cremation service providers operating within AVA-licensed premises: Mount Pleasant Veterinary Centre (5 Mandai Road) and The Animal Resort (Seletar West Farmway 5).

A quick online search showed that there are at least six other pet cremation service providers in Singapore, including Mobile Pet, Pet Cremators Singapore, Express Pet Cremation, Pet Cremation Centre, Paws to Heaven, and Singapore Pet Cremation.

Pet cremation service provider Rainbow Paradise closed in June last year but the subsidiary of pet boarding facility Mutts & Mittens has plans to reopen soon.

Three types of pet cremation services are available in Singapore, although not all companies provide them.

The most expensive option is private cremation, where the pet is placed in a cremation chamber alone and its owner can witness the process.

In individual or partitioned cremation, the pet is processed in the same chamber with other animals but in separate partitions to ensure the remains are not mixed.

The cheapest option is mass cremation where the pet’s remains are combined with other animals and no ashes will be returned to the owner.

Prices can range from as little as $20 for hamsters and birds for a mass cremation, and as high as $800 for bigger animals weighing more than 5kg, such as Labradors, for a private cremation.

Demand for such services is expected to grow as people in Singapore adopt more pets. There are an estimated 809,100 pets in Singapore in 2018 and the pet population is projected to grow to 820,000 this year, according to statistics from market research firm Euromonitor International.

A pet microchip scanner identifying an animal’s unique code. (PHOTO: TASS via Getty Images)

The microchip question

Under the AVA’s guidelines, all pet dogs above three months of age must be licensed.

Pet dogs are also required to be implanted with a microchip that carries a unique 15-digit identification number. If registered, the tiny device, typically placed between the shoulder blades of the pet, allows the animal to be traced back to its owner.

A receipt or cremation certificate is commonly issued by the pet cremation service providers to owners for them to de-register their pet licences.

Prince, according to its owner, had been licensed for the next three years, microchipped and has a name tag with his owners’ contact details. It is unclear if the pet cremation service provider which cremated Prince had scanned his microchip.

All industry players Yahoo News Singapore spoke to say they collect the owners’ particulars, such as their names and contact information, as well as their pets’ details, such as its breed and age, prior to cremation. But the overwhelming majority say they do not make it mandatory to scan microchips.

For one, many pets are not implanted with them, said Gary Chen, 35, operation manager of Pet Cremators Singapore.

Instead, Pet Cremators will ask owners for their pets’ licence numbers when carcasses are picked up from their homes. If microchip scanning were to be done, it would be conducted by vet clinics when carcasses are brought there, said Chen.

Similarly for Mount Pleasant Veterinary Group’s Mandai Pet Sanctuary, most animals are collected directly from vet clinics where they have already been identified as well as labeled with details and written consent from pet owners, said a spokesperson.

(Getty Images file photo)

Handling pet cremation with sensitivity

Given that pet cremation is a deeply emotional experience for owners, providers of the service say they have to handle each situation with care unless they suspect something is amiss.

Pet owners who approach Rainbow Paradise are involved in “every step of the cremation process”, said Sam Koh, 45, owner of Mutts & Mittens. As the provider “deals directly” with owners, it will only scan microchips on a case-to-case basis.

For carcasses brought in by pet boarding facilities, Rainbow Paradise will attempt to establish the reasons for the animals’ demise before contacting the owners directly for their consent. “If we suspect something is fishy, we will definitely probe further. It’s impossible for us to take in the case if we cannot get any details,” he added.

Others, like Patrick Lim, 67, co-owner of family businesses Express Pet Cremation and Pet Cremation Centre, said it was “not possible” to completely verify the ownership of a dead pet. Merely asking for more details about a deceased pet can offend or aggravate grieving owners, Lim explained.

“It is not practical as some owners may scream at us or start a fight if we attempt to scan the pet’s microchip. Even though the animal is dead, we have to be careful and gentle in handling the body,” said Lim. “We will scan if the owner requests for us to do that.”

When an owner of a deceased pet is uncontactable or unavailable, other “complications” arise.

“When the animal dies, the first thing is to have it cremated. You can’t just leave the dead animal there as it is a biohazard,” he added. “If there are other animals around, they may also be affected by a virus.”

Darren Tan, 41, owner of Paws to Heaven, however, cautioned that proper information must be taken down and that the cremation process should not be rushed.

For instance, Paws to Heaven will chill the pet’s carcass if the owner is not in town so that cremation can be done later. Microchip scanning can be conducted after the collection of the carcass, especially if the owner is too emotional, he added.

The company uses a handheld microchip scanner to scan the animal and the resulting identification number will be verified against the one provided by the owner. The number, alongside a photo requested from the owner, will also be printed on a cremation certificate.

Even so, Tan acknowledged there are constraints to the verification process even with the extra step of microchip scanning.

For instance, the identification number, when keyed into the AVA’s microchip or licence databases, will only indicate whether the pet has been licensed or if its licence is active.

“It will be good if the AVA has a portal for pet cremators where we can verify the identity of the owners; at the very least their names,” said Tan.

Christine Bernadette, 30, fundraising coordinator for Causes for Animals, suggested for the AVA to make it mandatory for pet cremation service providers to submit collected data to the authority on a monthly basis.

“Additionally, the AVA could look at making it compulsory for pet cremation companies to provide a minimal description of pets picked up and the locations they were picked up from. This way, even if the pet isn’t microchipped or is a stray, there would be some record of it being cremated,” said Bernadette.

(Screencaps of AVA databases)

CASE responds

In response to queries by Yahoo News Singapore, Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) executive director Loy York Jiun, 45, said that it has received three complaints involving pet cremation services since January 2014.

One involved an owner who said test results showed that 90 per cent of her pet’s ashes consisted of silicate compounds.

No complaints involving pet cremation services were received last year but 42 were made against other segments of the pet industry.

Loy, too, noted there is currently no requirement for pet cremation companies to verify the identity of the owners of the pets prior to cremation.

But he added, “Pet cremation companies may wish to consider this step to verify/confirm the identity of the owners as part of due process and ethical practice, especially if they receive the pets from a boarding facility.”

In the wake of the Platinium saga and Prince’s death, Express Pets’ Lim said public attention should not focus primarily on pet cremation service providers.

He said, “You have to put more care into live animals. If the animal is dead, it is at a dead end. What more can you do?”

(Cremation certificate courtesy of Paws to Heaven)

Related stories:

‘Missing’ Shetland sheepdog Prince died while boarded at Platinium Dogs Club and cremated: AVA

Operator of Platinium Dogs Club arrested, several pet owners reunited with their dogs

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At least 3 dogs taken from Platinium Dogs Club premises to be cremated

Dog dies after stay in Platinium Dogs Club boarding facility: pet owner