Impending Death of Pet - How Do I Explain to Kids?

Updated on August 15, 2012
T.M. asks from Tampa, FL
13 answers

I have posted several times about my cat and how annoying she is. My DH took her to the vet a couple of months ago for a check up and blood work and everything was in the normal ranges. However, I noticed a mass on her side a couple of weeks has not gone away. I went with my DH to take her to the vet today for the mass. After x-rays, the vet has determined that she has what is most likely a malignant, aggressive tumor (It wasn't present a couple of months ago). It is likely a sarcoma or carcinoma and it has started to grow within her abdominal wall.

The vet is not optimistic on the prognosis. He says that the only glimmer of hope (and he really didn't recommend this) was to treat it aggressively with surgery and radiation. He would have to cut out part of her abdominal wall. He said that it was extremely iffy as to if that would even make much of a difference in her prognosis. We could literally spend thousands of dollars and not affect the final result...she would still die within a year.

This cat is 13 years old...the surgery would be pretty tough on her and I just cannot see putting her through radiation. I also don't have thousands of dollars laying around to spend with no real hope of curing her. This is devastating to my DH since this is his cat. I will likely have to be the bad guy and help him come to the conclusion that eventually we will need to put her to sleep.

Questions are as follows: How do I help him come to terms with this loss? It doesn't really make sense to go to extreme measures when there isn't a reasonable probability that this cat will survive with good quality of life. Also, how do we explain this to our children who are 4 and 6? We are not really religious so we really can't use that approach?

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answers from Milwaukee on

You can be honest. The cat is very old in cat years and very sick. Letting her continue to live is very painful so you are going to help stop her pain.

Do NOT say putting the cat to sleep. That can be scary.

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answers from Los Angeles on

I am so sorry.
I think the best thing to tell DH to help him come to terms AND give him
solace is to let him know that while he would horribly miss his beloved
cat that it is in his (the cat's) interest to let him go.

To be free of pain.

To not suffer.

I love my pets. While it broke my heart to put them down (I knew I was
doing it for them to be pain free), I did it and my heart broke each and every time. My only solace was that they no longer suffered.

A few times I waited too long & they died before I was able to get them to the doctor to be put down. I'll never forgive myself for that. They deserved better (more help, less pain & suffering). Maybe tell him that.

In regards to the kids, I say tell them somewhat of the truth, that they need to spend time w/their beloved pet because "when it is time, you will
need to take him to the vet & he won't come home."

Break it gently. Be there for your hubby. I send you hugs sweetie.

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answers from Boston on

Explain that the cat is very sick. Increase that to "the cat is really suffering" and doesn't understand what's going on. Explain that in this case, there is no medicine that will work without causing a lot of pain, and emphasize that the cat is very old (that's important!). You don't want the kids to think that they will get sick and be allowed to die. Let them know that very old people die, and very old animals die.

If you have to euthanize the cat, explain to the kids that its her time to die and the vet is making her comfortable. DO NOT SAY "put to sleep" and DO NOT SAY "put her down" - it makes kids scared to go to sleep, and it makes kids want to be carried all the time lest they get "put down". Use "euthanize" if you have to, and say it's a big word but it means that it's an animal's time to die and the vet helps her do it without being in pain. For the 6 year old, you might say that the animal knows it's her time (she does) and she's ready.

For your husband, help him realize his job was to help her live and now it's his job to help her die.

There's a poem called "Rainbow Bridge" you can find on line and the vet probably has copies. When our dog died (in our arms, just as we were headed in for euthanization), the vet's office sent us a card (everyone signed it individually) and a copy of Rainbow Bridge.

Try to decide now whether you want to bury her at home or in a pet cemetery or have her body cremated. You can scatter those ashes or bury them. We chose burial at home, and we went to the craft store to buy one of those garden stepping stones you make out of cement. It comes with little stones and some colored glass pieces you can set in the wet cement. You can also get letters to press the animal's name and dates if you want. The kids can help design it. And it might be very helpful to your husband to engage in this exercise. You don't have to be religious - if you don't want to talk about heaven and God, then talk about the body going back to the earth, we're all part of nature, etc. If you have photos, you can make a little scrapbook with a few memories written out, maybe with a few stickers put in by the kids - everyone could have one page. Write down funny stuff she did, list her toys, whatever makes you smile.

The vet can probably give you some helpful resources.

It's not about the money - it's about making her miserable and scaring her through surgery and radiation when she's already very old. We get through losses by keeping our memories and by being together.

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answers from Portland on

We have a medically fragile cat, and my son is five, so this is something I've given a lot of thought to.

We don't know how long our cat has (he has kidney disease and pancreatitis flare-ups, which could mean pancreatic cancer). That said, we've been very clear with Kiddo about Gus's health. "He's a very old kitty and his body isn't working the way it used to. Some parts of him aren't working so well any more." We've used this to explain to our son that he has to be slow and kind with kitty.

Keeping language very simple is important. If it were me, I'd stick with simple phrases: "Kitty is thirteen years old,and for cats, that's a very long life." "Kitty's body isn't working well any more." If your cat is showing signs of pain, discomfort or distress, letting the children know that "Kitty's body is older and doesn't feel good for her any more" is simple and to the point. I don't know how into detail I would go regarding the tumor, but just keep the conversation simple, answering questions as they ask. I would also not explain having your cat put down in detail, but if asked to say simply that the cat was very sick and the doctor gave her some medicine so that she didn't hurt any more. Let them know that when she died, she was comfortable and glad she didn't hurt anymore. And that it is okay to be sad.(Okay, tearing up now....)

One book I highly recommend is "Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children" by Bryan Mellonie. This book doesn't involve any theology, just simply explains that there is " A time to be born, a Time to Die, and living in between". My son was 3.5 when we used it to help give him context for a death in our community, and it really helped. It talks very simply about why living things die--- they become old, they get sick or injured and don't recover-- I think this could be very helpful.

I'm so sorry, T.. I really hope your family finds a meaningful way to say goodbye to your cat. Some families make little memorial altars with pictures, so be sure to take those snapshots of the kids with Kitty while you can. Sometimes, writing a letter to a person or pet who has died can help children articulate their feelings-- they can tell you what to write if need be, or they can draw a picture for the cat, etc. Bring flowers in, put out a bowl of food... whatever helps your family feel at peace.

Hugs. H.

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answers from Charlotte on

T., I'm sorry about this. I 100% agree with you, not to put your cat and your pocketbook through the surgery.

Just keep her comfortable, and when she gets miserable, let her go.

My dog came down with cancer. He didn't want to lick the ice cream bowl over the weekend. That was a big surprise. On Monday, he didn't want to walk outside to do his business. On Tuesday morning, he laid down on the grass and my husband had to hold him up for him to pee. We went to the vet instead of to work - straight there. They xrayed him and saw cancer in his spine.

On Friday when I got home from work, he had peed all over himself and was in terrible pain. It progressed just this fast. We washed him, dried him with a hairdryer, took pictures holding him (yes, we were crying) and I called my mom to come. I told my kids that when I came back from the vet, he would not be with us and that he had to go to doggy heaven. They knew how bad off he was. I explained that cancer means that the doctors can't help him, but we don't want him to suffer. They loved on him and told him goodbye after my mom arrived.

She took care of putting the boys to bed after we left. She read to them after we were gone, answered questions the best she could, and stayed upstairs to make sure they fell asleep. At midnight, we got back home from the emergency vet, having taken him there to be put down.

The next day, I called our regular vet, crying on the phone about it. I asked her if I had done the right thing. She said that if I hadn't, his ketones would have been all out of whack and it probably would have caused him to have convulsions. She said that she wouldn't wish that on any animal, and putting him down was a kindness from my heart.

I will tell you that the first week, my son, who was 5, kept thinking that the door that "beeped" when it opened was the dog coming in. For a split second, I looked to see if he was coming in too :(

For your DH, tell him that he needs to be part of the decision when the time comes that the cat is in pain and misery. Tell him that you don't want to decide alone. If he loves that cat, he doesn't want it to be in terrible pain. Equate that pain to a person with cancer when you talk to your husband, T.. Can HE imagine having to lay there in pain, with no morphine? He doesn't want his pet to go through any of that.

I would preview the movie "All Dogs Go to Heaven" and see if you think it would help your kids. It's not religious, and it's not accurate, but maybe you would like it for them. I WOULD take pictures of the kids holding him and saying goodbye.

Good luck,

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answers from San Francisco on

Because the cat will be put down "eventually" there is no need to explain anything now.
We were told when our cat was diagnosed with a tumor that we should expect to have her another three to six months at the most. I prepared myself but didn't say anything to the kids, as I wanted them to enjoy those last few months.
Well she lived another almost FOUR years! So you just never know.
No need to upset the children until it's actually time. At that point do NOT tell them you had her put to sleep, that will be VERY upsetting at their age. Just say she was sick, and the vet did everything s/he could, but she died.
Kids usually deal with this kind of thing a lot better than the adults do, unless they were particularly close to the pet, which it doesn't sound like yours are.

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answers from Washington DC on

I know how hard this is for you and having children makes the death of a pet even harder. I have seen clients put their pets through the surgery and let me tell you it is horrible. The tumor is like A. octopus and spreads normally to their internal organs. They have to removed so much skin to get the tumor and the pet has to come back to the vet for multiple bandage changes and the skin usually sloughs and gets necrotic and then you have to put your pet through surgery to debride the skin and try to reattach to a fresher area causing more skin loss. Sorry for being so graphic but I agree with you for not doing the surgery and making her suffer.
So sorry. Try reading Rainbow Bridge to them. It is a poem, you can probably google it and print it out.

'There is a bridge connecting Heaven and Earth. It is called the Rainbow Bridge because of its many colors. Just this side of the Rainbow Bridge there is a land of meadows, hills and valleys with lush green grass.

When a beloved pet dies, the pet goes to this place. There is always food and water and warm spring weather. All the animals who have been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. Her bright eyes are intent; her eager body begins to quiver. Suddenly she begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, her legs carrying her faster and faster. You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together, never again to be separated.
here is the source just so I dont get in trouble!

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answers from Phoenix on

I am watching my moms house/plants/pets while she is on a 6 week vacation. Her cat died during my watch. The night before she left, he threw up and didn't look good and went downhill from there. So at least she *knew* it was coming. Anyway, my kids love her pets so I just told them the truth: that KC was sick and he wasn't doing well and would likely be going to heaven in a few days. they looked shocked of course. He has since died and I have yet to tell them, but when I do, I will simply say that I have bad news about KC (pause so they *know* whats coming), he didn't make it and he's gone to Heaven now to be with Boo Kitty (our old cat that died).My kids are older but I still think its hard when a pet passes. I think you just need to stick with the facts and tell them they can ask you questions. I think its *better* when you can warn them its coming, as opposed to dying immediatly with no notice. Also, take some pics (if you don't have any), so they have something to help them remember. I hope you get some good suggestions. Good luck.

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answers from Kalamazoo on

We had a dog that bit one of our neighbors and then 'went to live with a nice family on a farm' when I was a kid. Or maybe kitty ran away??

If you want to be honest, just say kitty is very sick and you dont want her to suffer so you are having her put to sleep, follow the kids lead for how much more informtion to give... and a new kitten always softens the blow.

My friends had a dog that fought their cat and killed it. The kids say we used to have a cat but the dog ate it. Their mom just told them the truth, it didnt seem to upset them. Simple and to the point is always best.

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answers from Baton Rouge on

Kids understand more than we often give them credit for. Keep it simple but honest. Fluffy is very sick, and there isn't any way to make her well. As she gets sicker, she is going to be in a lot of pain, and there aren't any medicines that can help that either. The vet can give her a shot that will allow her to die peacefully and quickly.



answers from Washington DC on

These are very hard situations on everyone, but also they serve as introductions to real life events that can't be avoided forever.
If it were me, I would probably wait until the time is near (appointment scheduled) and tell them that kitty is very sick and the doctors are not able to make her better anymore, so soon kitty is going to go to heaven and wont be able to be here with us anymore. Be honest when they ask questions. I would give them an opportunity to say goodbye to her. Maybe they would like to take a picture with her so they have something to remember her by. You could help them frame it and put one in their bedrooms or something. We are not religous at all either, but at this age I think its easier for kids to understand "kitty died and went to heaven" and is consistant with what they will likely hear from others.


answers from Boise on

I've only got a minute but I wrote an article on this not to long ago, so I figured I would just link you over to it. It's another parenting site, but the information will be useful and tells a pretty strange experiences we had recently...



answers from Orlando on

T., I just went through the exact same thing with my yorkie who was 9 years old, two weeks a go. My children are 4 and 6 as well so it was weird reading my same story!

Unfortunately we came home and our dog had passed but appeared to be sleeping. I just explained to them that he was sick and passed away. We buried him and to be honest they took it better than me but then again I've had him all his little life so I was more attached.

Like others have said just be honest, I've learned through this experience kids are more resilient than we give them credit for. Soon after my daughter was asking if we could get another taj (his name) but I told her Mommy wasn't ready for another pet now.

Hope this helps!

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