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Ask the Doctor October 2013 Issue

Kids and the Loss of a Beloved Pet

Letter to Tufts Veterinarians

Help children to understand

Q My husband and I have lived with our cat, Sebastian, for the entire 18 years of our marriage. Unfortunately, Sebastian is starting to show distinct signs of his advancing age (kidney disease, for one thing) and we know it’s only a matter of time that our family will need to say goodbye to our beloved pet.

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We would appreciate your opinion on involving children in a discussion regarding euthanasia. We have 10-year-old twin girls, and both are very attached to Sebastian. We want to handle this as sensitively as possible, and not just make up a story about Sebastian “going to Cat Heaven.” Any advice would be much appreciated.
Louise and Tony Antonucci

A Dear Louise and Tony: You ask an important and difficult question. My 12-year-old daughter walked into the room as I was reading your question and I asked her what she thought. My daughter replied, “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t like to talk about death.” Two years ago, we lost an 18-year-old cat to which my daughter was very close. I believe that memory is still painful.

You must exercise compassion and judgment when discussing death with your children. Discussions of death vary with each family and their own beliefs.

An excellent response from a veterinarian on question of euthanasia and children was found at http://bit.ly/XkdF58. I will paraphrase: “The answer is to be honest. I am always impressed by how well children understand and respond to these very difficult situations. Explain that the pet is ill, often suffering, and that we have the ability to end that suffering in a very humane and gentle way. If you really love a pet you have to make these kinds of decisions. The children will feed off of how you as the parent react. If the parents are truly sad and dealing with the sadness in a healthy and thoughtful manner, the children will follow their example. I tell my clients, ‘it is okay to feel sad, but don’t feel guilty.’ These are two very different emotions. You and your children can feel the sadness. But don’t mix guilt in with the sadness. One emotion is healthy, the other terribly burdensome.”

I believe that young children should not be included in the decision making process about euthanasia. The decision to euthanize a beloved pet is never easy, even for adults. Adults can weigh the decision with perspective gained by life experience; children do not have the perspective to weigh all the emotional, medical and financial factors that go into the decision to euthanize a pet. Parents should discuss the loss of the pet, but not the decision of whether or when to euthanize.

The death of a pet is a difficult situation for children. For many, this is their first experience with death. Parents face a challenge and additional advice may be sought from a physician, clergy, or counselor. My thoughts are with you during this difficult period.
Michael Stone, DVM
Clinical Assistant Professor
Cummings School of Veterinary
Medicine at Tufts University

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