Seeking Advice on Explaining a Pet Death

Updated on March 30, 2009
A.W. asks from Downingtown, PA
19 answers

We just found out that our lovable lab has terminal cancer and is in a lot of pain. We are probably going to have her put down this week to end her suffering. My husband has had her since she was able to leave her mommy, and my two and a half year old son is very attached to her. We don't know how to explain to my son that when Daisy goes to the doctor, she won't be coming home. Has anyone had a similar experience, or any advice on how to explain it to him? My husband gets so upset, he can't even talk about it. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. thank you!

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E.G.

answers from Philadelphia on

Hello, I am a new Mommy to a 15 week old son. I have been working with animals for the past 25 years, as a licensed Veterinary Technician for 18 and have always had pets. Currently we have 8 dogs, 4 cats and 3 horses;one of our most beloved dogs was euthanized due to cancer 4 weeks ago. There are a lot of amazing books for kids about this subject and there are some that are fine for children of 2 1/2. (The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is amazing). I have found that honesty such as Daisy was too sick and she died even is good but of course your child will have no concept of death. The idea of going away and never coming back will understandable so you will have to re-explain often, I think. Also don't be surprised if he doesn't react as you think;often times kids just accept and move on and the parents are left thinking that they raised a non-feeling person but it's just how children work. It also may be a good time for your son to make a picture book-you have to help glue in the photos and add the words but have the words be from your son and then he has a memory book of Daisy that he made.
Good Luck and I'm sorry for your loss. Dogs are so amazing.

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J.M.

answers from Philadelphia on

Hi A.!

For a few years my lab Bear had arthritis. He was getting around at first but last summer, at the age of 12, was suddenly deteriorating before my eyes. He couldn't get up or down anymore, he was losing control of his bladder/bowels even though he never had one accident in the 8 years that he was ours, and in his sleep nonetheless. Bear was part of our family before I even had my 2 children and I often referred to him as my "4-legged son in fur". We were devastated but in fairness to him, we took the advice of our vet and decided that it was selfish to watch him suffer any further.

I didn't know how I was going to tell my daughters who were 5 and 7 at the time-they were very attached to one another-afterall, he was already ours when each of them was born. I finally decided to explain to them that he was really sick and he would be going to "doggie heaven" to be with his mommy and daddy who would take care of him from then on. I told them that we would spend the entire weekend with him and we did just that. We played ball with him (he still did his best to run for it), we gave him extra treats/table food whenever he wanted it and we especially took alot of pictures of him with the girls. When it was time on Monday afternoon, my daughters walked us to the car and kissed him goodbye. We were all saddened by the experience but I knew that we were doing the right thing.

Less than a week later, we went to a shelter to look at dogs. In fact, we almost adopted another lab but I couldn't do it. I hadn't grieved Bear yet. I told my girls that maybe we'd ask Santa for a new dog. Well they held me to it so we now have a female lab that we picked out for Santa at a shelter. While we still miss Bear tremendously and we know that he could never be replaced, we love Harley and she's been a wonderful addition to our family.

I don't know if this will help as your son probably doesn't even understand death or heaven at his age but my heart goes out to you. Whatever you decide to tell your son, please make sure that you don't just take Daisy without his knowledge or without ever letting him say goodbye. My parents did this to me as a child thinking I was too young/wouldn't understand and I never got over it.

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B.K.

answers from Pittsburgh on

Hi A.. I'm sorry to hear about your dog, we went through the same thing (bone cancer) with one of our dogs a couple of years ago. The best thing to do is be honest and keep it simple. Tell your son in very simple terms that your doggy is very very sick and hurts a whole lot. Tell him that the Dr can't fix everything and that your Doggy is going to heaven where he won't hurt or be sick anymore. When he gets older you can explain it more. Putting any beloved pet to sleep is sooo hard don't make it any more complicated than you need to right now. Also don't be surprised if your other animals react to the loss as well, it will be hard on them too! Deepest sympathy.

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D.P.

answers from Pittsburgh on

A.,
I'm sorry you are going through this. It is tough and I had to go through it with my 16 yr. ol husky, Nikki. But I was not a mom yet when we put her to "sleep."
I did have to deal with death (of a beloved Pap Pap) when my son was about 2.5, and I think you should explain to him that all lives have a beginning, a middle and an end. Tell him that the vet did all they could to help Daisy but sometimes it's not enough to make dogs not sick any more. Explain that living things, at times, can be so sick, that medicine cannot help any longer and at that point, Daisy's life will end. If you are a Christian, you can tell him that when dogs die, they go to heaven where Jesus makes them well again but they have to stay there forever now. I would avoid the phrases "sleeping" "put to sleep", etc. as they may be confusing to him. I would not go into the euthanasia concept at all. Just explain when you get back that she was so sick, her body couldn't be fixed anymore.
Just be honest but keep it in basic terms that he can understand. Don't be surprised if he keeps asking when she will be back, etc over and over. Kids process this slowly and in little chunks that they can handle over time. It may take him a while to understand the finality of death. You can tell him that as long as he loves and remembers Daisy, she will be alive in his heart. Again, sorry for your situation. Pets are truly part of the family and it IS a huge loss when a dear pet dies. Their sweet, unconditional love makes it worth it, though, don't you agree?

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S.P.

answers from Philadelphia on

Hi A.

I am so sorry to hear about your furbaby. Just know that it is kind and humane to end her suffering when you do have to make the decision to euthanize her. I just went throught this in september. I had my Jake from the day he turned 8 weeks old, he was 10 1/2 when I had to put him to sleep. He had a stroke at home, it was awful. I believe in God and heaven, and believe that Jake is waiting for me in heaven. My son wasn't 4 yet when Jake had to be put to sleep. I explained that Jake was too sick for the doctor to make better and that he died and went to heaven. I told him heaven was a special place where Jake was happy and healthy but we will never see him again. He was confused, he is still sometimes confused. I keep my explanation the same everytime.
Your son will be sad and confused. I didn't tell my son anything about euthanasia, or being put to sleep, he is too little to understand and it would only scare him. Your son is going to react to yours and your husband's grief as well. My son gets upset if he sees me crying, when Jake died I cried a lot, but tried not to cry in front of him because I didn't want to increase his concern. I did explain that I was sad because Jake died, and it is ok to be sad and cry. To make matters worse, one of our cats went into kidney failure about a month ago and she had to be euthanized as well. I gave him the same explanation but now when I go anywhere with our dog he wants to know if she's coming back.
My son did ask a lot of questions about us dying too. I tried not to lie when he asked, I told him that everybody dies but usually when we get much older.
He still asks about Jake sometimes, so don't be surprised if he does ask, or even if he doesn't.
Follow his lead, if he asks questions, answer as simply as you can.

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M.C.

answers from York on

A.,
We also had an experience like yours. We had a chow-Pei (Chow Chow & Sharpei mix)She was the best dog we ever had but she ended up having liver and kidney failure. She was my best friend, literally, since I am a stay at home mom of 4 I don't get out to socialize very much. But anyhow it was the hardest thing I ever had to do, the decision to euthanize. To let her spirit go free with no more torcher or pain. We took her to the vet and had it done, without our kids along. Our oldest is being evaluated for Autism and is very emotional he also would not have understood why we did what we did. He was 8 years old at the time. When we got home we told the kids that the vet did every thing that she could do but there was nothing that they could do (which really wasn't a lie since they could not do anything else for her). We made sure that our two oldest children had something "special" about Sandy. Her coller, a picture of the whole family with her, etc. It worked really well when ever they missed her they could hold on to that special thing and feel comforted that they had a part of her with them. For me it has not gotten much easier I walk past her grave and still get teary-eyed. I just try to remember the great times we had with her. We now have two labs (mom and daughter), mom is pregnant again so when you decide the time is right feel free to contact me. M. or [email protected]____.com . I will give you a puppy for your son FREE.

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R.W.

answers from Pittsburgh on

We recently lost our dog. I have a 2 year old. Someone gave her a book Called DOG HEAVEN by Cynthia Rylant. I think it helped with her understanding the whole heaven explanation.
You and your family are in my thoughts.

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N.A.

answers from Philadelphia on

I don,t know if this will help or not but Borders book has a small section of book about death and dying in the childrens section.We got one called What's Heaven after my husbands great uncle passed away. My son was 3 at the time and it helped then and during the passing of family pets and great grandparents. The book is written by Maria Shriver. Hope this helps.
I'm very sorry to hear about your Daisy. It's not easy to lose a member of the family.

A.J.

answers from Williamsport on

At two and a half, your son is not going to be sad unless you and your husband are. And he will not understand the concept of death and does not need to. Tell him Daisy is going away now, it's the best thing for her, she has a new home, and she will be very happy. If he notices you guys being sad, explain, "we're sad because we'll miss Daisy, but it's OK, she's very happy, she went to live in heaven. We'll be fine." Then keep the mood light for your son's benefit the best you can. It will be a few years before he can grasp the details of these things-unless you make him sad and drill it into him.

A few days before our friend came to pick up their cats after we kept them for months, I prepared my daughter who played with them all day every day, that they were going back home, and we'll miss them, but it was time to say goodbye. She was fine and understood when they left, and said goodbye. I know it's different situation, but your son is not nearly affected by the gravity as you are. I would treat it the same way. Don't feel like you have to draw him into an adult understanding of the big picture at this age. Good luck, very sorry for your loss.

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A.R.

answers from State College on

My son was the same age when our 12 year old dog died. The dog had been sick and at the vet for a few days before she died. We visited the dog at the vet while she was being treated, so my son saw that she was sick, although at the time the vet kept telling us she was making her better. We were honest with him when she died. We explained she was very sick and wouldn't be coming home. For a while he went around telling everyone, "Cracker died." The experience stayed with him for a while. He would randomly ask questions about when people were going to die, especially if they were sick. He may not have understood everything at the time, but we have had someone close to our family die since then (my son was 4 at the time) and he remembered things we told him when Cracker died. It seemed to help him understand. So anyway, my advice is to be honest, you may be surprised at what he will understand.

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D.T.

answers from Philadelphia on

Cynthia Rylant has a good book called Dog heaven-also one for cats

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K.L.

answers from Erie on

So sorry to hear about your pet. I second the comment the vet - children should think of all doctors as trying to make people and animals better, not as instruments of death (even though it is the right decision to put her out of her pain). Other than that, it is good to be open with him - that it is OK to cry when we miss someone, whether they are across the miles or crossed over to a better place. By seeing you expressing your emotions, he will be more comfortable to express his own . . . good luck~

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L.G.

answers from Philadelphia on

Hi A.,

I am so sorry about your dog. It is really hard to have to make the decision to put your pet down. We have 2 cats so I know that we will have to address this issue at some point. I have a book that my mother-in-law got for me that covers all different situations related to death (pets, classmate, immediate family member, freak accident, etc) and also breaks it down by age. The book is called

How Do We Tell the Children? A Step-by-Step Guide for Helping Children Two to Teen Cope when Someone Dies

By Dan Schaefer, PhD and Christine Lyons

I think I got it at Borders. Hope this helps. L.

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A.L.

answers from Philadelphia on

I am very sorry. I have been through it twice... it's not easy. With Peaches, my daughter Natalie was 2 and with my cat my daughter Julia was 3. Both times we explained that we don't get to keep animals forever and that they are ours to enjoy for a little while, but when they get old and hurtie it's time for them to go to Doggie or Kitty Heaven (or whatever you believe.)

The good news is -- a 21/2 year old is NOT going to be as affected as you and your husband are. They are likely to occasionally "miss Daisy" but otherwise, you will be pleasantly surprised by how little they react. Mine reacted to my sadness - way more than to what actually happend. In both cases we had to put them down. We told them that they needed to say goodbye and that the doctor was going to help them go to sleep forever so that they didn't have anymore pain.

My thoughts are with you. Please let us know how you make out.

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C.C.

answers from Philadelphia on

My daughter is four now and last year I had to put my cat to sleep because he was 18 years old and could no longer walk well or hold his own bowels(sp?). He also had a sister that was my brother's that had to be put down as well. The best way I explained it to my daughter is that when Smokey went to the doctor he went to sleep and couldn't get back up so now he is in heaven with god running around with good legs and he doesn't hurt anymore. She was upset, as was I, I had him since I turned 9 years old but I kept telling her that he didn't hurt anymore and he was okay. That seemed to work for her. Good luck and I am sorry. Pets are part of the family just furrier and we love them just as much.

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A.B.

answers from Philadelphia on

HEy A., sorry to hear about your dog. My family are dog lovers and we had a similar situation two Christmases ago. I had a beagle mix who was 18 and a half years old, yes he was that old, and he had been having some old age issues and was getting worse. I kept holding onto him because i had him since he was only 3 weeks old. A few weeks before Christmas he had gotten worse and could not walk. I decided to aleviate his pain and have him put down. At the time my daughter was only 3 and a half. the explannation I gave to my daughter some may fuss about but it worked for her at her age. She kept asking where he was and so I told her that Santa needed him as his special helper. yes i fibbed and some moms may say i should have told her the truth but i did not feel she would understand the truth at her age.
Again i am sorry.
A.

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A.R.

answers from Philadelphia on

A.,

We just went through this a few months ago with our 12 year old boxer. My kids are older than yours, but my husband was just as upset. We didn't hide our sadness from the kids. One suggestion I would make is to go to Michael's Craft Store or A.C. Moore and buy a "Pet Memory Stone" kit....it's about $15.00. It has everything you need to make a memory stone for your pet.....a continual reminder of how much you loved the pet and that he/she will never be forgotten. We made the stone as a family, embedded her dog tags in it, even put her own footprint in it (she wasn't all that happy about that part). Now it sits in our garden and we can go spend time with her anytime we want. That was a very meaningful process for us. I know your son is only 2, but years from now that stone will still be there. It's not easy.....I would also recommend sitting with the pet during the euthanasia process (you and/or your husband). I did, and although hard, I don't regret it.

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L.H.

answers from Philadelphia on

You cannot prepare a child for it, because developmentally, the child cannot anticipate that kind of event. The words probably won't have any meaning.

I'd take the child to a sitter and then take the dog to the vet and have the experience with just you and your husband. If your child notices that you are upset before you leave, just explain that your dog is sick, and that makes you very sad.

Then, after you pick the child up from the sitter and get home, sit down with the child and simply say that the dog has died and that you are very sad. Fill in the details when he is older, like someday when he sees a picture of himself with the dog and asks you, "whatever happend to that dog, anyway?"

Please,DO NOT MENTION THE DOCTOR! The very idea that the dog would go to the doctor and not come home again is mortifying to a child! The idea of having a dog put down at the doctor's office is just too scary. He has no way of differenciating between animal doctors and people doctors right now, so don't even go there. Just say that the dog died. It is the truth, and the details are irrelevant to a 2 year old.

Concentrate on the feelings that come from missing the dog. If he is sad, just say that you are sad, too. Chances are, you and your husband are more upset about it than your son will be.

And, no words of explanation is going to make any sense to your son right now. He will probably ask for the dog several times in the coming weeks no matter what you say, and you'll just have to repeat that the dog has died.

Here is the only explanation of death that I have used for my kids when they were little that seemed to shed some understanding. I use a puppet as a prop. I either put it on my hand or on the child's (or both) Then I move the puppet around and make it talk, etc. And I ask them, "Why is the puppet moving? How is it talking, etc." and get the child's responses. Then I take the puppet off the hand and lay it down on the table. "Isn't the puppet moving and talking now? Why not?" and get the child's responses. Then say, "It was my hand (your hand) that made the puppet ALIVE! When I took my hand out, the puppet isn't alive anymore, right? Well, when we die, it is like when we take the hand out of the puppet. The part that made (the dog's name, the person's name) ALIVE is no longer there! (We believe that that is the spirit of a person, but if your beliefs are different, you can substitute that). When you take the spirit out, it is like taking your hand out of the puppet. The spirit goes on to do other things, just like when you take your hand out of the puppet, now your hand can do other things. The puppet's body is still there, but it isn't alive because his spirit is gone out. And that what it means to die."

Then if he has questions about WHY, I just simply explain that the body was too sick for the spirit anymore, and that is like when a puppet gets torn or broken or whatever, and the hand wants to go play other games. I'd only go into that explanation if they child asked, however. Or I'd do it on another occasion, like when I was repeating the explanation another time. I'd also get the child to explain it back to me, or to explain it to another person, like daddy or grandma, on another occasion as well. Such as when the child gets a real sad face and says something like, "Our dog died." and you say, "Yes, he did. What does that mean?" and let him explain it to you as he understands it.

I'd also concentrate on trying to comfort your husband and to try to be understanding of his greiving process...and that it is a process. Your son may or may not really greive himself, he may mimic what he sees in you and your husband.

I hope some of this helps,
L.

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J.M.

answers from Allentown on

I'm so sorry to hear about your sweet dog! It's always hard to lose a family pet. My only advice to you is to not phrase to your son that the dog is going to the doctor, otherwise he may associate going to the doctor & never coming back. I would gently tell him that Daisy needs to be in doggy heaven where she can be happier. Let him be apart of the grief process with you & your husband it is completly normal. Again I am so sorry you have to go through this. Best of luck.

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