Helping a child cope with pet loss
The loss of a pet may be your child’s first experience of death—and your first opportunity to teach them about coping with the grief and pain that inevitably accompanies the joy of loving another living creature. Losing a pet can be a traumatic experience for any child. Many kids love their pets very deeply and some may not even remember a time in their life when the pet wasn’t around. A child may feel angry and blame themselves—or you—for the pet’s death. A child may feel scared that other people or animals they love may also leave them. How you handle the grieving process can determine whether the experience has a positive or negative effect on your child’s personal development.
Some parents feel they should try to shield their children from the sadness of losing a pet by either not talking about the pet’s death, or by not being honest about what’s happened. Pretending the animal ran away, or “went to sleep,” for example, can leave a child feeling even more confused, frightened, and betrayed when they finally learn the truth. It’s far better to be honest with children and allow them the opportunity to grieve in their own way.
Tips for a helping a child cope with the loss of a pet
- Let your child see you express your own grief at the loss of the pet. If you don’t experience the same sense of loss as your child, respect their grief and let them express their feelings openly, without making them feel ashamed or guilty. Children should feel proud that they have so much compassion and care deeply about their animal companions.
- Reassure your child that they weren’t responsible for the pet’s death. The death of a pet can raise a lot of questions and fears in a child. You may need to reassure your child that you, their parents, are not also likely to die. It’s important to talk about all their feelings and concerns.
- Involve your child in the dying process. If you’ve chosen euthanasia for your pet, be honest with your child. Explain why the choice is necessary and give the child chance to spend some special time with the pet and say goodbye in his or her own way.
- If possible, give the child an opportunity to create a memento of the pet. This could be a special photograph, or a plaster cast of the animal’s paw print, for example.
- Allow the child to be involved in any memorial service, if they desire. Holding a funeral or creating a memorial for the pet can help your child express their feelings openly and help process the loss.
- Do not rush out to get the child a “replacement pet” before they have had chance to grieve the loss they feel. Your child may feel disloyal, or you could send the message that the grief and sadness felt when something dies can simply be overcome by buying a replacement.
Making the decision to put a pet to sleep
A decision concerning euthanasia may be one of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to make for your pet. As a loving pet owner, though, the time may come when you need to help your pet make the transition from life to death, with the help of your veterinarian, in as painless and peaceful a way as possible.
Knowing when it’s time to put a pet to sleep
Euthanasia for a beloved pet is highly personal decision and usually comes after a diagnosis of a terminal illness and with the knowledge that the animal is suffering seriously. Your choices for your pet should be informed by the care and love you feel for the animal. Important things to consider include:
- Activity level. Does your pet still enjoy previously loved activities or is he/she able to be active at all?
- Response to care and affection. Does your pet still interact and respond to love and care in the usual ways?
- Amount of pain and suffering. Is your pet experiencing pain and suffering which outweigh any pleasure and enjoyment in life?
- Terminal illness or critical injury. Have illness or injury prohibited your pet from enjoying life? Is your pet facing certain death from the injury or illness?
- Your family’s feelings. Is your family unanimous in the decision? If not, and you still feel it is the best thing for your pet, can you live with the decision that you have to make?
If you do decide that ending the suffering is in your pet’s best interest, take your time to create a process that is as peaceful as possible for you, your pet, and your family. You may want to have a last day at home with the pet in order to say goodbye, or to visit the pet at the animal hospital. You can also choose to be present during your pet’s euthanasia, or to say goodbye beforehand and remain in the veterinary waiting room or at home. This is an individual decision for each member of the family.
What to expect when putting your dog or cat to sleep
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, euthanasia for a pet is most often achieved by injection of a death-inducing drug. The veterinarian may administer a tranquilizer first to relax your pet. Following the injection of the euthanasia drug, your pet will immediately become unconscious. Death is quick and painless. Your pet may move its legs or breathe deeply several times after the drug is given, but these are reflexes and don’t mean that your pet is in pain or is suffering.
How to explain pet euthanasia to a child
Explain that the pet is ill, often suffering, and that you have the ability to end that suffering in a very humane and gentle way. It is a simple injection, very peaceful and painless, and if you really love a pet you have to make these kinds of difficult decisions.
- Children tend to feed off of how their parents react. If a parent is hysterical, the children will be the same. If the parents are truly sad, and deal with the sadness in a healthy and thoughtful manner, the children will follow their example.
If you are putting your beloved pet to sleep for the right reasons, tell your children that it is OK to feel sad, but don’t feel guilty. These are two very different emotions. You should feel sad, and your children can feel the sadness, but don’t mix guilt in with the sadness. One emotion is healthy, the other terribly burdensome