Sunday, October 05, 2008

Explaining the Death of a Pet to Children

Our family had a close call this week when we thought one of our cats might die. Alley is nineteen years old and suddenly stopped eating. After running several tests, the veterinarian thought she might have an infection and prescribed antibiotics. When she still failed to eat (and dropped down to 7 pounds after being twice that weight a year ago), we had to consider our options. Do we continue with more aggressive treatment, knowing that she’s lived a long life already? Would she be strong enough to endure more tests and procedures? Fortunately, before we got to that point, the vet suggested one more medication for a possible condition similar to irritable bowel syndrome. It worked! The next day, Alley was starting to eat again and has been improving each day. But even though she recovered this time, I realize that, considering her advanced age, her death is most likely in the near future. And it made me realize that I had to come up with a strategy for talking to my four-year-old twins about her death when it occurred. Here are some tips that I found in my research:

Be honest. Don’t tell your children their pet was “put to sleep” because they may get false hopes that it will wake up again! Or it may scare them into thinking they’ll die in their sleep, too. The same goes for telling them that Fluffy ran away or went to live with someone else. Gently tell them that your pet died.

Read children’s books that talk about the death of a pet with your children. They will contain simple, easy-to-understand language that will help them understand what happened. They’ll also realize that others go through this experience.

Let your children know that it’s okay to cry and be upset. Tell them that you are sad about your pet’s death, too. Encourage them to talk about their pet and share memories when they’re ready. Don’t act as if the animal never existed or sweep its death under the rug.

Let your children help you think of a way to memorialize your pet. Plant a tree in the pet’s honor. Make a homemade gravestone. Put together a photo collage for their room.

If you’re religious, talk about your faith and beliefs about death. Do you think that Rover is in heaven? Let the children know that he is no longer ill or in pain. Help them to imagine how happy their dog is now. However, do not tell them that God “took” their pet to heaven as they may fear that God will take them away from you, too!

If you’re reading this before your animal has passed away, it’s a good idea to bring up the possibility of your pet’s future death with your child. Explain that animals don’t live as long as we do. This will help them not to be so shocked when their pet actually dies.

If possible, pick your time wisely to tell your children that Princess has died. You don’t want to tell your child that her cat died right before she’s ready to get on the school bus. Select a time when you’ll be able to answer questions and allow your child to grieve privately.

Expect your children to react differently. One child may cry, while the other may seem indifferent and hold his feelings inside. You may need to talk with each child individually about how he or she is processing the pain.

Don’t be in a big rush to replace the pet. Sometimes, children get the mistaken idea that people are replaceable, too! Give them time to grieve the lost pet before talking about a new one.

The death of a pet is part of the human experience. Although you can never make this a pain-free event for your children, you can do a lot to help them process their pet’s death and express their feelings.

Technorati Tags:
, , , , , , ,


  1. Buddies3:59 AM

    Tricky one this - an aethiest frind of mine turned to relgion for an explanation.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful post about such a tough topic to talk to children about! It was very useful for me:)

  3. Oh, I'm glad the cats made out alright. You have a great site here. I just found you I think on twiter moms


Thank you for your comment. All comments are moderated and will go live after approval.