Death of a Beloved Pet

Updated on July 08, 2009
K.M. asks from Huntersville, NC
17 answers

I need some help deciding how to explain the death of our dog Cooper to our 3 year old, CAllie. Cooper is 14 years old and has multiple cancers. We will probably have to put him down later this week. My husband and I are devastated, and I'm very concerned about our daughter. We have a new 3 week old baby, which is hard enough for our older daughter to adjust to--and now this. Cooper is currently at the hospital, and Callie is asking lots of questions about when he's coming home. We spent a lot of time talking about the hospital before the baby was born.
I don't know how to explain death to a 3 year old. I don't want to tell her he was very sick, because then I'm afraid she'll be terrified the next time anyone is sick. I don't want to tell her that Cooper went to go and live with God--because I don't want her thinking that God took her dog away.

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answers from Charlotte on

Hi K., sorry to read about your pet. Our maltese died just before his 15th birthday! My 2 boys came along long after Ceazar, so this pet is all they have ever known. When he died, I explained to the boys that Ceazar was 102 years old (14.5 x 7)!!! And that Ceazar had a long wonderful life with us and was now in heaven running again and happy, doing all of the fun things that he couldn't do here anymore. I truely believe that hearing he was 102 was easier (they will be 14 before we know it :) I asked the boys if it was ok to bury Ceazar in one of their baby blankets, and they said YES. I told the boys that they could pet Ceazar one more time to say goodbye or we could simply bury him. They chose to see him, so I only pulled the blanket back enough so they could rub his hair. Then we buried him in our backyard and held a little service which each of us shared our funniest memory of Ceazar. One child decided that it was time for me to know how much Ceazar loved Butterfingers! We laughed through all of our tears, and it was a special time for us. I'll never forget it. Later, we purchased a small marble stone from Lillington Vernon with Ceazar's name and dates, and planted a new tree in his memory. It's a weeping willow in memory of his long flowing hair, but we call it "The Ceazar Tree".

Three is really young, but I hope our experience will help you.


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answers from Lexington on

My 11 year old yorkie had to be put to sleep when my boys were 2 1/2 and 5. I told them she got very sick and the vet couldn't help her anymore. I made sure to explain this was worse than a cold/virus or what they consider to be sick. I told them she died and we buried her in the back yard. I believe I said she went to heaven and God will watch over her for us. We talked about it every day for at least a month. We got a new puppy a few weeks later and that seemed to ease things a little. It will be 4 years this Dec. and they still talk about her sometimes.

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answers from Raleigh on

I had the exact situation a few years ago. This is what I did:

We knew 2 days before we had to put our dog, Drew, down. I took that time to explain to my 3yo son that Drew's body was very sick and did not work very well and his body would die soon.

I hesitated to use the word die, but I found being frank & truthful really paid off - it dispels a lot of confusion.

I then explained that his spirit would still be with us. We would not be able to see his body any more, but we could talk to him any time we wanted to and he would be there.

I let my son say good bye to drew before we had him euthanized. I let my son know this would be the last time he would see Drew's body. I also told my son he could help Drew by letting him know it is ok for him to contimue to his next journey. That we would miss seeing him every day, but if he needs to go we will be ok. (I believe animals do not have the same attachment to their bodies as we do. They hold on longer waiting for us to be ok. I feel it helps the animal to let him know we are ok if he needs to pass)

We lost our other dog only a few months later. My son would sit on the Front porch of our house to talk to the dogs when he missed them. He came up with that himself. That was the place he felt really close to them.

At some point, there will be a relative. I see this as a great opportunity to create dialogue with your children & have an open discussion about the tough subject of death. They have the opportunity to be comfortable with the subject before a greater loss occurs. I dont tell my kids what to believe, but I tell them what I believe.

They are 4 & 6 now, and we still talk about Drew & Nicky & what or where their spirits are. We can talk about it joyfully.

Hugs to you
Dont forget to breathe...
I am so sorry.


1 mom found this helpful


answers from Wilmington on

You have to tell her because my parents had a similar issue and my dad handled it alone. We had a very young cat who had a lung tumor and had to be put asleep. My dad didn't tell my mom for a while and then they didn't tell me for several weeks. I always was angry that the animal was gone and I never said goodbye. You may need for her to say her good byes. She needs closure also. You don't have to be detailed about everything but just say he is sick and is going to go to Rainbow Bridge (you might want to google that story). It is very sweet. She will have to learn about death at some point. Unfortunately for me, I learned about it very young as I had many family members die. However, I found it to be a healthy thing as many people don't learn about it until later in life and can have devastating psychological effects. There have been many books written for children about human death as well. I believe Maria Shriver has one. I am sorry you have to go through this. When my son was little, we tried to prepare him as our dog grew older. She died at 14 yrs. and it was still hard. We would explain that she was getting older and how her legs weren't working as well. She was a sweetheart German Shepherd and was part of the family just like yours. Again, I am sorry you have to go through this but it is inevitable. Do what your heart tells you to.

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answers from Nashville on

Explain to her that all dogs go to heaven. That you were very blessed to have Cooper as long as you did, but God will bless you with another pet. And do that, quick. It helps fill the void and children adjust very quickly with that. I am so sorry for you. I know how tough it is. This poem brought me much comfort.
It helped me to see my little Kramer (11 1/2 year old toy poodle) running and playing and waiting for my day!! God bless.

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answers from Fayetteville on

I certainly think you should use the smallest words and simplest explanation as you can while still being direct you don't want any misunderstandings.

We just recently had to explain to our 3yo daughter why her fish was gone. We could tell that he wasn't going to make it so we started talking about how sick he was and how he might have to go see her friend Jesus (that's how she talks about Jesus) for a day or two. Then we took him out of the tank after bed time. She asked when he was coming back and we said when you die and get to go see Jesus you have to much fun to come back. That was about 2 wks ago and since then she told me that he must have had fun since he didn't come back. I know its not quite the same as a dog but she sure did notice and it gives us a starting point for any future talks about death. Good luck!

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answers from Greensboro on

Hi K.,

I feel for you as I have been through the same thing. I can't tell you what is right but I can tell you what I did.

Our dog got very sick and we took him to the vet. it was a sudden thing and when I came home (distraught enough for myself) my 6 year old asked me what happened and she caught me off guard...I said that we put him to sleep because he was so sick. She seemed to be okay with that explanation. It was years before I realized how literally she took it. She actually thought he was asleep at the vet's office. As she got older she of course figured it out...I can tell you a three year old can't take too much explanation. They think too concretely and can't articulate exactly how they understand things to allow you to clarify any misunderstandings. The simpler the better...

God bless you!


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answers from Raleigh on

My grandmother recently passed. My soon-to-be three y.o. knew she was sick (we visited her often in hospice). Although he went to the funeral, I don't think he knew what was going on. A week after she died, he asked what happened to her. I told him simply that she died. I told him that people get only one special battery that lasts a long, long time. When we get really old and that battery gives out, we can't replace it (like our toys), and we die. That explanation was good enough for him and he hasn't mentioned it since. I think as long as you keep it simple and in terms she understands, you will be surprised at how well your daughter will accept the answer you give.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Raleigh on

I'm so sorry for the loss of your pet. We recently lost our german shepard of 10 years, my daughter is also three and I have 10 year old stepson. Let me tell you it was a very hard conversation. Both my children saw how upset I was when we went to pick up our dog from the vet and found out it was cancer. We knew he was sick he had stopped eatting very much, but anyway, my daughter asked why I was sad and I told her Nick-Nick was very sick. I called my husband, we had to decide how to handle, we were told he had a week and would essentially starve to death the long we wait. My stepson knew what was happening and understood that he'd be put to sleep the following Sunday, he was very upset but understood. We explained to my daughter how sick he was and that he would be going away soon, that he would go to heaven. The kids both enjoyed several days with our dog eventhough he was very sick. On Sunday when the kids got home they were both told that Nick was gone. Now it's been probably two months and my daughter still asks about her dog, she knows that he died and that he went to heaven and that he was very, very sick (not just a cold but with something we couldn't fix). It's still hard and we haven't replaced him. I would really discourage running out to get a new dog immediately, it's very hard for a family that hasn't fully dealt with the death and a new dog doesn't know why the family is so sad and may become dominant for that very reason. I don't know if you've ever watched the Dog Whisperer, but a number of the really big problem cases have been for that very reason. I would recommed waiting until the whole family is really ready and involve everyone in the decision. We've gone to the SPCA a couple of times and started looking, but I refuse to rush into a dog that isn't right for a family. Best wishes, I know it'll be hard but you'll get through it and so will your family.



answers from Wheeling on

I guess I'm a little callous about this subject, but everyone and every living thing WILL die, and we may as well get used to it. Tell her that he was very OLD and sick, and that he went to be in heaven where his life/spirit can be free, healthy and happy again because he was hurting a lot. I saw a movie once (with Richard Thomas) where someone (I believe a child - maybe even a twin) died. They illustrated this to the other child(ren) by putting their hand in a glove and showing how it could move just like the hand moves, but when the hand (the life) was taken out, it was just an empty shell (and that's what happens to our body. The life leaves to live on elsewhere, but the empty shell is left behind as it's no longer needed). Maybe something like that . . .??

I can almost guarantee you that this is harder on you than it is on her. Let her see your grief and know that it's OK to be sad. This is also a great lesson that people (and pets) are a great comfort to one another when they share sorrows as well as joys.

A joy, when shared, is doubled.
A sorrow, when shared, is halved.



answers from Charlotte on

I unfortunately forsee going through the same thing with our 4 year old daughter in the near future. I found this article very helpful....

Hope this is helpful and wish you the best.



answers from Raleigh on

First of all let me say I am so sorry for the coming loss of your dog. I lost one of mine a few years ago and it still brings tears to my eyes. Luckily I was pregnant at that time and did not have to explain that death. I still have two more dogs, one which will probably pass on when my son is 4ish.

Your in a really tough situation. My son is one and he absolutely adores our dogs! I am sure it is the same way for your daughter. I read over some of what the other people wrote, even though it made me cry...and I really agree with the person who wrote she told them the truth and talked about their spirits being with them forever. I know its tough and I'm not in the situation not knowing what I would do, but I really did like that idea. I definitely wouldn't play the "vacation" tactic. Once again I am so so sorry for your upcoming loss!



answers from Raleigh on

First of all I am so sorry for what you are going through right now. It is not easy to lose a pet and they are like members of your family. I am a pet owner/lover and I also worked as a receptionist at a veterinary hospital so I am very familiar with all aspects of what you are going through. I think the best thing is to be honest with your child. In a way that is appropriate for a 3 year old. She should not be hidden from this as it will only cause more problems in the future. Let her know that Cooper is very old and that he is ready to move on. Tell her that he will be okay but that he is hurting and he needs to be where he will not feel anymore pain. My father passed away when I was 4 and I was allowed to be by his side when he passed and to attend his funeral. It is a personal choice whether you allow her to be at the hospital and see him "go to sleep" or not. Most vets now have an IV port in the arm or leg of the animal and just give them a shot it is very quick and peaceful not something that should be scary to her. Our dog had to be put to sleep when I was 5 or 6 and we just dropped her off at the vet without much explanation I think that I would have had more peace to see how quick it was. Of course that is a personal decision but I do think you should be as honest as possible even if she does not go to the vet with you. I hope this helps. I am so sorry. I am here if you need to talk.



answers from Raleigh on

This one is hard. But my sister-in-law and her family recently had to put their dog to sleep. She has three kids 8 years, 6 years and a 3 1/2 year old. When they came over to our house recently, they immediately told us that their dog died.

They said that he had been very sick and one day "he shut his eyes and then didn't open them again" and now he is in heaven with God. Sometimes it can be as simple as that. I hope all goes well.



answers from Louisville on

i lost one of my dogs when my daughter was about 3. i too was terrified at using the right words and how she would react. at this age they really dont understand death and thats ok. so you dont need to give too much detail. its ok to say he was VERY sick and old. she wont link the 2 together about having a cold and death and if she does say people get colds all the time. you say you dont want her to be angry with god. do you go to church.? see if you can talk to your pastor about it and if they have any ideas. never use things like going on vacation or sleeping because that implys they will be back. good luck and im so sorry for your loss i know how hard this is!



answers from Knoxville on


I'm so sorry about your beloved Cooper. We just had to go through this with our precious 13-year old Chocolate Lab, Eli. His quality of life just wasn't there in the end. We have a 4-year old little girl who adored him. We found that just being honest with her was the best approach for us. We didn't go into detail of course. We just told her that all things are born and all things will die one day. We also told her that Eli was in heaven running, swimming and playing and doing all those things he loved to do here except now he didn't feel bad anymore. We even laughed about that part a little.

We talked about it often - any time that she brought it up. I told her that it was OK to feel sad - that all of us did and I even took her down to the tree where we buried him and let her say anything that she wanted to.

I think it helped to let her work through it at her own pace and just ask questions. She still says that she misses Eli. We just talk about it and cry if we need to, laugh if we need to but most of all, we remember the good times we had with him together.

Hope that helps some.



answers from Chattanooga on

I am sorry that you all are having to deal with this. Losing a beloved pet is not much different than losing a human family memeber. Unfortunately, I do not know titles with me, but do know that there are some good books that deal with death of pets that were written for preschoolers. You may want to ask your local librarian for some help and then read the book yourself before reading it to her so that the message conveyed in the book is presented in a way that you are happy about. If your daughter is in preschool they may have a library or one of the teachers may have a suggestion for a specific title.

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