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Helping with ‘Goodbye’

by Jessica Rhodes, D.V.M. | August 21, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

I love a good kid and pet duo! I have the opportunity to talk with lots of children about their dog or cat during a visit in the clinic. I enjoy watching their interaction, hearing their stories, and being impressed by their latest trick. I feel very blessed to be able to raise my daughters with a variety of animals in our lives. Animals are great at being our children's friends, confidants, and playmates. They help us teach our kids about responsibility and unconditional love.

What do we do though, when the lessons become harder? When our pets are aging, or sick, or suffering, how do we prepare our children for what happens next? Unfortunately, I have attended many euthanasia procedures during my career. I have talked with many children during this most difficult time. I want to share some of their concerns in hopes that it might help you to prepare your own children if your family experiences the loss of a pet.

Many parents I speak with struggle with the decision to have their children present for a pet's euthanasia appointment. There are valid points both for and against a child witnessing the death of their animal, and in the end, it is a decision only the parent of that child can make. I would advise parents to consider the age and maturity level of their child, the child's ability to understand the animal's disease, age, quality of life, and the decision to choose euthanasia. Lastly, if considering including a child at the appointment, talk to them about what to expect, what they might see or experience. Ask them if they want to be present, then, honor their decision.

Children do not always understand why we are choosing death for an animal. It is one thing for Fluffy to die at home at a ripe, old age. It is quite another for Fluffy to be euthanized. In children's black-and-white thought process, it may seem very wrong to cause the death of an animal. Suffering may not be a concept that a child completely grasps.

It can feel scary to children to come into an exam room for a pet's euthanasia appointment. Mom and Dad are upset. The doctor is somber. The pet is getting shots. Death is in the room, right in front of them. Most children have not experienced these situations before. If they have experienced loss, then the appointment may remind them of the emotions they felt during that time.

I have observed that children will often avoid contact with their pet during the appointment. Parents may encourage petting or talking to the animal and children may voice or show body language that communicates discomfort with this type of interaction. Personally, I think it is important in that moment to validate those little emotions and to allow the child to participate in the way they are most comfortable.

Many children believe their animal will go to Heaven or the rainbow bridge after death. Some expect their pet to disappear when they die in order to reach their final destination. It can be confusing for the animal's body to remain in the room with them after death. It is helpful for parents to explain their beliefs and proper expectations to the child prior to that moment.

I often feel as if parents are counting on me to explain to their child the reasons for the decision to euthanize, the process of euthanasia, and answer all questions during the appointment. While I do not mind answering questions from children or adults, I do feel that children need this type of information before coming to the clinic. It is a lot to process and they deserve the chance to hear from the people they trust most -- you.

The death of a beloved pet is likely an experience your child will remember for life. It is our responsibility as parents to prepare them in the best way we can. If we are asking our child to witness the euthanasia of their pet, then we must allow them to experience that process in an age-appropriate way. I think it is highly important to set aside our own expectations of how our child might react or how they may behave during this time, and be honest and open to their questions or concerns.

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