Family pets are almost always more than that. Over time, they become a part of the family and ingrain themselves into the household. Coping with a pet loss can be a traumatic and heart-wrenching experience, especially for a child who hasn’t yet experienced any other type of death.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Steps for Telling Your Child About Putting Your Pet to Sleep
- Tips for Helping Your Child Grieve After Your Pet’s Euthanasia
When the time comes, telling a child that the family pet has to be put down can be an opportunity to start talking to kids about death. The following guide can hopefully make breaking the news a little less painful for everyone.
Steps for Telling Your Child About Putting Your Pet to Sleep
Saying goodbye to a pet can be a painful experience. Finding the right words to say may be challenging when you don’t know how to tell your child about putting your dog down, but it’s not impossible.
1. Explain what’s happening
It’s OK to have conversations with children about death and dying. Explaining to them that everything that lives will one day die prepares them for when they suffer a loss of a pet or loved one.
When giving them the details of having to put your pet to sleep, don’t over-promise healing or another outcome other than death. After all, the only possible outcome of euthanasia is death.
Explain what will happen when you take your pet to the vet to be put down. You don’t have to give them every detail, but do make sure they understand that euthanasia is final and permanent.
2. Focus on their reactions
When telling them about your pet having to be put down, consider focusing on your child’s needs and emotions so you can be alert to any distress signals. Most children instinctively understand when there’s something wrong or is not quite right. They may already know that their pet is suffering and close to death.
When you tell them about the decision to end your pet’s life, remind your child of the pain your pet is in. Also, let them know how much you love your pet and how much it hurts to make this decision. No one should feel guilty about not wanting to see their pet suffer.
3. Honor your pet’s life
Turn your pet’s euthanasia appointment date into a celebration of their life instead of focusing only on the sad part of it. Consider spoiling your pet with special attention and treats or a favorite meal.
Share funny stories and unforgettable moments with your child and take lots of final pictures. You can expect there to be lots of tears and sadness on this day, but it can also be full of happiness and joy.
4. Keep it real
Never lie to your child about what happened to their pet or where it went. Prepare your child for what happens at the veterinarian’s appointment and discuss the euthanasia process. Give them enough information for them to understand according to their age, but don’t give too much detail that may cause nightmares later on.
Ask your child if they’d like to accompany their pet to the appointment and decide ahead of time how you’ll dispose of your pet’s body.
5. Don’t mince words
Using words like death and dying are a natural way of describing what happens to a pet when it’s euthanized. Use care when choosing your words. A child may not understand phrases like “going to be put to sleep” or “is going to heaven now.”
Explain the euthanasia process to your child in clear language that’s easy to comprehend for their age and maturity level. Try saying things like:
- “Fluffy has been sick and in so much pain that it’s difficult for him to live a good life. I think it’s time that we say goodbye to Fluffy and get ready for him to die.”
- “Peanut’s doctor says Peanut doesn’t have much longer to live and he will die soon. Let’s make sure that we give him one last special day before that time comes.”
6. Let them ask questions
Prepare yourself for an onslaught of questions concerning death and euthanasia. Consider reading children’s books about death to explore death-related concepts with your child. Let your child take the lead on the conversation, and make sure to let them know it’s OK to ask as many questions as they need.
Try not to feel guilty about the decision to put your pet down. Have an open conversation with your child about why the decision had to be made.
Tips for Helping Your Child Grieve after Your Pet’s Euthanasia
Making the decision to end your pet’s life can be a traumatic experience for both you and your child. You can help ease their pain and suffering by taking measures to ensure that your child and pet spend quality time together prior to having the procedure done.
The grief process is different for every child. How one child reacts to grief can’t be measured by how any other child processes their grief even when faced with a similar loss. Here are some ways in which you can help your child grief after your pet has been euthanized.
7. Have a family meeting
Discuss the procedure and how everyone feels about it afterward. Give everyone the opportunity to express their feelings and share whatever is on their mind regarding having just lost their pet.
The grief process sometimes takes a while to kick in. You may want to revisit this conversation in a few days to follow up on how everyone is doing. When discussing death with a very young child, you may have to guide them into the conversation. They may not yet know how to express what they are feeling.
8. Be extra supportive
In the days and weeks following the death of your family pet, it’s important to show extra care, support, love, and affection to your child. Young children in particular equate the death of their pet to having lost an important person in their life. They will need you to guide them in their grief so they can understand what they’re feeling.
You may want to consider making extra time in your schedule for your child during the first few days and taking them on special outings. You can take this time to grieve together and talk about your loss.
9. Allow them to be present
Depending on the child’s age, you may want to ask them if they want to be present during their pet’s final moments. However, this isn’t recommended for every child. The euthanasia process is painful and heart-wrentching to watch at any age.
Consider first explaining what will happen during and after the procedure so that they can make a better-informed decision on whether they want to be present.
10. Give them time and space
Every child who has experienced a significant loss will need to process their grief in their own way and at their own time. When you allow a child the freedom to explore what they’re going through, they will learn to better cope with their grief-related feelings and emotions.
The grief process may take a few days or weeks to manifest in your child. Keep a close eye on them during this time and look for signals that they may be having a hard time coping with their loss. Things to look for are:
- Changed sleep patterns
- Loss of Appetite
- Lashing out
- Deep sorrow
11. Help them plan a memorial
Celebrating a pet’s life in their honor may help your child with their grief. Give your child several options on how you can best remember the life of your pet, and let them decide what makes sense to them. Structure the memorial service depending on the child’s age and level of understanding.
A very young child may not appreciate a full service and memorial planned for your pet. However, they may respond well to going out for a walk to pick flowers for the grave if you decide on a burial.
You can even visit a hobby store to pick up some materials to make a special headstone for your pet’s grave. Your child will appreciate the extra time and attention you’re giving them, and they will have a lasting memorial to mark the grave.
12. Consider adopting another pet
There’s never a right or wrong time to adopt another pet. You may witness your child grieve over the loss of their pet one moment, and turn around and ask if they can have another pet before the end of the day. It’s important to teach a child that a pet is not something that is easily replaceable and that each animal is special.
Take the time to talk about whether adopting another pet is right for your family after the loss of a pet to euthanasia. It may be that you or your child is not yet ready to move on from your loss and take on the added responsibility of another pet so soon after the death of the first one.
Telling Your Child About Pet’s Euthanasia
Experiencing the death of a pet can be painful for a child at any age. What you say and how you say it will depend on their age and level of understanding.
However, not every child will be able to accept and process this information easily. It’s best to start the conversation off in small doses, giving the child just enough so that they have time to process the news and ask questions. You can take this time to teach a child that grief and loss are a normal part of life.
If you're looking for more on pet loss, read our guides on pet caskets and pet memorial ornaments.