Preparing Children for Euthanasia of a Family Pet

September 3rd 2019

By Darlene Vandevenne MSW, RSW
While death and dying are part of the cycle of life, it can still be very frightening for some people and particularly for children. However, it is something we all experience at some point in our lives and unites us all.

Explaining death of a pet to children

To ease our own anxiety around this difficult topic when talking about euthanizing our pets, we sometimes use words such as “put to sleep”, “passed over”, “put-down” or “gone over the Rainbow Bridge”. The word “euthanasia” actually comes from the Greek words “eu” meaning good and “thantos” meaning death. While no one wants to see their pets die, we certainly do not want them to suffer and euthanasia allows them to die with dignity in a pain free manner under the care of a veterinarian. Explaining that euthanasia is a painless way for our pets to pass away could help ease your child’s mind.

Helping children grieving the loss of a pet

When it comes to losing a pet, it is best not to avoid dealing with our own pain of loss and grief. Each person experiences grief differently and that includes our children. 
In fact, the loss we feel for our beloved pets can often transcend the loss we may feel for other human beings in our lives since they provide us unconditional love and acceptance, loyalty and a sense of security and well-being difficult to replicate in human relationships. Pets are often described as family members and we sometimes refer to them as our children.
For our children, the death of a family pet may be their first experience of death and dealing with loss and they will likely look to parents for guidance on how to deal with this experience.
When we acknowledge our own grief and loss and allow for us to honor these emotions, sharing memories about our beloved pet with our children can give them permission to express their feelings. There is no one right way to experience death and dying – it is a uniquely personal experience for all.

What should you tell your children about the death of a pet?

It is important to share an understanding of the pet’s illness with your children and explain that death is the final part of your pet’s life.
It is important for children to know that no one is responsible for your pet’s illness or death so they know they don’t should not feel responsible for their pet’s death.

Explaining euthanasia to a child

If children are to be a part of the euthanasia process do not describe it as “putting the animal to sleep” as children are concrete thinkers and may think they could die when they fall asleep.
Even if children are not part of the actual euthanasia of the pet, they should be included in discussions about the pet’s health and decisions around the euthanasia and how the family need to consider the quality of life of their beloved pet.
Children need to know that euthanasia is final and their pet is not going to sleep, only to wake up later. Use simple age-appropriate language to explain what is happening to the family pet and do not be afraid to express emotions as it is very natural for the family to feel sad and let the children know it is ok for them to express their emotions too.

How old should a child be to be in the room when a pet is euthanized?

Deciding to have children participate in the actual euthanasia is a personal decision, based on the age and emotional maturity of the child and based previous experience with loss and their ability to understand the euthanasia process.
Children over the age of six generally have a better understanding of what it means for an animal to die than younger children.

Coping tools for your child after the death of a pet

Rituals around death and dying can offer some comfort and transition. You may want to consider having children draw a picture or write a letter for their pet or offer your pet’s favorite toy to accompany them in the euthanasia.
For those children who do not participate, they can at least prepare a letter to send with their pet or pick out a toy to accompany the pet.
As a general rule, when children ask a question regarding their pet’s health or the euthanasia process, answer them simply and honestly. If they do not continue to ask questions, they are content, if they continue to ask, share more detail to satisfy their needs.

If you are considering having your pet euthanized and have questions about home or in-clinic euthanasia, please call our caring and compassionate staff at (403) 615-8016.
For more information about euthanasia please read some of our other blogs on this topic:

My Pet Has a Terminal Disease - What Do I Do Know?

Pet Euthanasia - How to Decide and Cope

What Happens During Pet Euthanasia?

Pet Euthanasia at Home - What to Consider

The Grief Experience When Your Pet Passes Away

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