How to Talk to Your Child about the Death of a Pet (and help them grieve)

If we have a pet in our lives, then unfortunately at some point there will come a time when we will need to make a really difficult decision to say goodbye.

Today's question is all about how to speak to your children about the death of a pet. How to talk to them and involve them in the buildup to euthanasia. And once your dog or cat has died, how to help your child grieve.

how to talk to children about a pet’s death

Cindy Lou is our 11 year old chocolate lab who has arthritis in her back, polyneuropathy, and pharyngeal paralysis. We are taking her to the vet in the morning to discuss options about making her life more comfortable. When we ultimately decide to put her to sleep, how do we explain and comfort our 8 year old son when we would be grieving her also? - Jennifer

  • It may well be that there are treatment options that could improve her quality of life, depending on the treatment she might already be on. It's also important though to have an honest discussion about her current, and likely future, quality of life given all of the issues she is struggling with.

  • If the time has sadly come to save her from suffering any more then I would recommend talking to your son about how she is in pain and is suffering, and that even though she is putting on a brave front to please you all, it has all got too much for her.

    • Talk to your child one-on-one in a quiet, familiar, safe place free from distractions

    • Explain how your vet and the whole family have done everything possible to treat her and keep her comfortable

    • Explain that the act of euthanasia means your dog will slip away and die peacefully. It is not a painful or violent procedure

    • Answer any questions your child has honestly

  • If your child can recognize how much your pet is struggling then he will be able to understand that you are actually saving her from a future life filled with pain. Rather than being a negative act, it is actually a decision filled with kindness and love.

  • Think hard about whether your children should be present during the euthanasia itself. It may be better for them to say goodbye to your pet before the final visit.

  • Let them grieve

    • Have a remembrance ceremony, draw pictures, write poems, make a scrapbook….

    • Normal stages of grief:

      • Denial - refusing to believe that pet has died

      • Anger - can be directed towards parents, vet, especially if euthanized rather than died

      • Bargaining - with god

      • Guilt - blaming themselves for not being able to do more or for causing them to die, feeling they should have known something was wrong sooner

      • Depression - becoming withdrawn, behaviour can regress

      • Acceptance - remember the good times and look to the future

    • Let your child know it’s OK to be experiencing these emotions and they should not feel like they have to hide how they feel

    • Let them know how you are feeling

    • Share stories about your pet

  • It will be very hard for everyone, but being involved in and understanding the experience is an important lesson to learn, and one that can be a real benefit when it comes to developing emotional intelligence + helping them cope with loss later on in life

  • Things to avoid when your child loses a pet:

    • Blaming you vet. This is unfair on your veterinarian and can lead to a fear or distrust of vets in the future, negatively impacting a future dog or cat’s healthcare

    • Using euphemisms like “put to sleep”, “going to sleep” when talking to young children. These can lead to confusions and even a fear of the link between sleep and death. Instead use words like die, dying, death, and dead

    • Delaying conversation. If your pet has a long-term illness or you feel they are likely to die or be euthanized soon, talking to your children sooner rather than later can help them process and accept the decision

    • Forcing your child to be present against their wishes when their pet is euthanized.

    • Dismissing grief or trying to minimize by saying things like “they were just a dog”. A child can form an incredibly close relationship to any pet. Whether they have lost a dog or goldfish, you should not dismiss the magnitude of their emotions

    • Don’t get a new pet straight away as a replacement. You don’t want to teach your child that animals are disposable or easily replaceable

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