When your family adopts a pet, it becomes a part of the family. When the pet grows old and becomes ill, inevitably you must discuss the possibility of the death of your beloved pet. For many children, losing a pet is the first experience they have with death, and the grieving process can be difficult for them. As you talk with your children about the death of your pet, it is important to listen to their concerns, questions, and feelings.
Euthanizing Your Pet
No one wants a pet to suffer any longer than necessary, so some families decide it is best to euthanize their pet. Euthanizing a pet involves “death by injection” for a terminally ill or suffering animal.
If you decide to euthanize your pet, be honest with your children. Talk about death before it happens using age-appropriate terms. For instance, “We all love Bailey so much. She is very, very sick and can’t do the things she used to like to do because she is in so much pain. The veterinarian said that was Bailey’s way of showing us that she could no longer live the life she was used to living. She said she could help Bailey die, so Bailey wouldn’t hurt anymore.” Make sure that young children know that very ill pets can be euthanized, but sick children never are.
Be Honest With Your Child About What Happened to Your Pet
When your pet dies, do not tell your child that the pet has run away. This explanation can leave your child wondering whether he did something to make the pet want to leave. Also, don’t tell your child that the pet has gone to a farm. This could give your child the false hope that he can see the pet again.
Although adults often talk about having to put their pet “to sleep”, it is not recommended that parents use this terminology with young children (under the age of 6). For young children, sleeping implies that the animal will eventually wake up. When the pet doesn’t wake up, young children can develop fears about going to sleep.
I also recommend that you don’t tell your children that you are putting your pet “down” because often parents will use the same term when they put an infant down for a nap. This can be very confusing for young children.
Managing Grief Over The Loss Of Your Pet
It is healthy for children to see that you are also sad about the death of your pet. It’s a great way for children to understand that being sad is okay. You can tell your children, “I’m so sad because I really miss Bailey.”
Everyone grieves differently, so if your child doesn’t cry, let her know it is okay to show her feelings any way that feels comfortable. Your child may enjoy showing her feelings by looking at pictures of the pet, drawing her own pictures, or telling stories about positive and silly memories of her pet. Why not make a book of everyone in the family’s favorite memories of the pet, complete with photographs or drawings? It will be a great keepsake for years to come.
What Happens To The Pet After He Dies?
If your family’s religious or spiritual beliefs impact how you view death, share them with your child. There is also a poem about the death of a pet called Rainbow Bridge that has a beautiful way of describing where the pet goes once she dies. I recommend that families only share the first three paragraphs with small children, as the next two paragraphs discuss people reuniting with a pet when they die. If your child is having a particularly difficult time with the death of your pet, this can be very unsettling.
When To Adopt a New Pet
It is a very personal decision as to whether or when it is appropriate. Children should not be encouraged to get a new pet merely to “get over” the loss of their pet. A new pet doesn’t replace their beloved pet. Once your child can speak openly about the pet that died and begins to show an interest in a new pet, then the family can discuss if it is the right time.
*North Shore Pediatric Therapy, Inc. (NSPT) intends for responses to the blogs to provide general educational information to the readership of this website; all content and answers to questions should not be understood to be specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). Questions submitted to this blog are not guaranteed to receive responses. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by NSPT to people submitting questions. Always consult with your health professional first before initiating or changing any aspect of your treatment regimen.