Death of a Pet

Advice about helping a child deal with the death of a pet. This article contains several different scenarios of what members experienced.

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Question 1:

"One of our fish died. When my 4-year old asked what happened, I told him and he got really upset about it. I guess maybe I should have come up with some other explanation. Then, I started softening it by saying the fish was very sick and had to go to the doctor. Didn't help much. I'm not quite sure how to handle this now. Should I try to get a same-looking fish and say he got better and he is back? Or should I just try to help him through this first experience with loss? If yes, how do I do that? I somehow didn't really expect this strong reaction, as he didn't even notice the fish missing for a week..I would appreciate any advice as he just cried for a long time about this before he fell asleep."

 

Answers:

"Death is very hard to understand, especially for children who are just beginning to understand loss of any kind.
My son has always wanted to know the real story about everything, and I have always given him age-appropriate answers to his queries. Like your son, he is very sensitive and emotional, but I've always felt that it is most beneficial to give him the opportunity to experience his feelings so that he can learn to live with them.
In his ten short years, he has grieved several tropical fish, hermit crabs, house plants (yes, he cried for a house plant), two beloved cats, a grandfather, a beloved dog, a grandmother, and very soon another grandmother. In 2001, when he was all but five years old, HE insisted on going to memorials for people lost. A few months ago, he spoke at his grandmother's funeral. He understands the importance of embracing ones feeling of loss, paying homage to the person lost, and helping family and friends get through the hardest days and then get on with the rest of their lives. No, I wouldn't replace the dead fish. The life lesson is too valuable."

"When my daughter was in preschool, the class pet mouse died. The teachers briefly (in an age appropriate manner) explained what happened then had a little memorial/burial in the yard.
Death and dying pets is a fact of life. I think honesty is the best way to deal with it. When you start making up stories to soften the blow you'll really have a problem the day you can't fix it. Forexample if a family member passes or if someone gets sick he might start to fear the doctor. Once children find out what you've told them is not true they may feel let down and confused.
My daughter, now ten has experienced the death of 2 dogs, a guinea pig, and 2 grandparents, and while these experiences have made her sad (briefly) it has not affected her in any negative way. I really feel that this is because we are always up front with her about what is happening/going on, which leaves her feeling secure."

 

Question 2:

"I am in the unenvious position of having to euthanize my 18 year old cat today and aside from the many emotions I am feeling since I have had her since she was a kitten, I am also having a hard time figuring out how to communicate what is happening to my 3 year old. Last night I told him that she wouldn't be here when he comes home from school today but he just said, "OK mom." I looked in the archives for some information in this topic but found none. Does anyone out there have any advice or experience with this challenge."

 

Answers:

"I recently had to do this, too -- last week -- and some may think I wimped out but I told my 2-year-old that the our kitty (a 16-year-old duffer) went to the "cat playground." I thought it might be cheesy, but then she asked me if the cat's mama was pushing him on the swing and if he was laughing and I thought that was as good an image of life after death as anyone could hope for."

"Sorry to hear about your cat. I went through it many times -- its always heartbreaking and never easy. I think you are off to a very good and honest start with how you approached the situation for your toddler. We've always been honest with kids in our family about a pet dying. We'll say, "Little Man went to be with Lily...but we'll see her again someday..." Things like that. Your baby will miss the cat and will ask many, many times for it. The asking will become less over time."

 

Question 3:

"My husband and I have decided to put down our 11 year old cat, after suffering 6 months of chronic, incurable illness. We've never had to go through this situation and I am looking for advice, both practical and of the coping variety. Things I am thinking about are:
Should we have the procedure at home or at the vet's office?
Should we be present at the time?
How do we comfort our other cat, which will undoubtedly be in mourning?"

 

Answers:

"We have lost two cats over the years, one who died of natural causes while we were away for the weekend and one that we had to put down because she was suffering. They were both awful and heartbreaking but I felt worse having our beloved Boo just disappear on us (our poor neighbors delivered his body to the vet for us). I felt wracked with guilt that we weren't there. It was much better to be with Petunia when she was put down, as hard as it was. I was holding her on my lap at the vet, which wasn't the most comforting environment but was the one we found ourselves in of necessity. If we could have done it at our home, I guess I may have gone that route but, at that point, we just wanted her to be out of her misery. It took our other cat a long while to stop looking for Boo everywhere and we gave her a lot of extra attention. We haven't gotten another cat yet.
I'm so sorry! It really was a huge loss for us so I can imagine what you're going through."

"I went through this 3 years ago, when my son was 6. We made an appointment to have the vet come to our house in the evening, and we told our son that the cat (who was really very sick) died and then we called the vet (as opposed to the other way around).
When I was about my son's age, our elderly cat at the time suddenly became sick and my parents decided to put him to sleep right then and there. It's a rough lesson for kids, but they ARE able to grasp it. I remember they let us say good-bye, and then we waited in the waiting room while my parents stayed with the cat. I think I would've preferred if I could have been in the room with them, but I don't know if my parents were up to having us there (it was my Mom's cat).
Having gone through it now with two pets of my own, my suggestion is that you let the kids stay after the first shot that puts the pet into a peaceful sleep. After the second injection, the one that stops the heart, the pet might experience reflexes and such, which can be hard to witness.
Personally, I am glad that I was there up until the final moments, petting, talking to and comforting my beloved pet right up until the very end. But this is a very, VERY hard thing to do.
The best comfort for your other cat is to wait a month or two and then get it another feline friend. It's hard to suddenly be an only cat.
btw, I highly recommend the book, "The ten great things about Barney." It's about a kid whose cat dies."

 

Follow up:

"Times like this remind me of everything that's great about this community. I arrived at work this morning with a slew of supportive and informative emails regarding our decision to put down our beloved cat. Many, many, many thanks for making us feel less alone as we go through this tough process.
To share the practical advice I received: the conclusion was nearly unanimous that the procedure should be done at home if financially possible and that Animal Kind and Hope Vet (the latter is our Vet already) are by far the most caring clinics in the neighborhood.
What I found most interesting from the emails is that many of your pets, particularly cats, fell incurably ill in the year following the birth of your first child. This has also been the case in our house. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned about the emotional sensitivity of our animals. My husband has always referred to our cat as my "first born." I wonder if my Joe (who has lived with me on two continents and through countless apartments and paramours, and survived a couple of near-death events - all with pluck and aplomb) decided that I no longer needed him. I wish I could convince him otherwise.
Sorry to wax poetic about a silly cat. Website for help:
http://www.aplb.org"

 

Useful resources from around the web:

How do you define quality of life for your pet? Read this article about how to tell if your pet is in pain.