Your Child and Pet Loss

Should Your Child be present for Euthanasia of a Pet?


This is actually a very difficult question.  I will start by saying there is clearly no one right answer for all children and all situations.  That being said, of course I have my own opinion on the topic.


I am a veterinarian, but I am also a mother.  I have four wonderful children and they range in their sensitivity.  As a parent, I wish for my children to grow up to be well balanced and emotionally healthy.  My hope is that they will have a healthy respect for life and and understanding but not a fear of death.  


My children have had more losses of pets than likely most.  Partly because I am a veterinarian and we have always had lots of animals.  Also, partly because we had pets before we had kids so the pets were aging when my children were still young.


In my house there is a deep bond between my children and the pets.  The pets are like siblings to them.  The dogs sleep in my kids beds, they play with them, sing to them, dress them up, and LOVE them like the wonderful part of the family they are.


My children are also intimately connected to decisions regarding the pets in our family.  They do not make the decision regarding medical decisions or when to euthanize a pet.  However, I do discuss with them my reasoning and why we have made certain decisions.  It is difficult to explain to a child that their pet is aging and it is their time to let them go on to heaven.  Of course it is difficult!  There are tears, hugs, and the full range of emotions.


My children grieve for every pet lost, even those with short lives such as Hammie (the hamster), or Blade (the rat).  And they likely grieve more deeply for those that have been part of the household for as long as they can remember.


One of the most special bonds was between my son and our American Bulldog, Oscar.  Oscar was our first family dog and we got him one year before my first son was born.  It was 6 years before we had another child.  In those 6 years, Oscar and my son were best friends and brothers.  They created a deep bond.  Oscar lived for 13 years and when we had to say goodbye to him it was especially difficult for my son who was 12 at the time.  Oscar had been his brother for his whole life!  


When it was time for Oscar to go we had an open discussion about it and a special last day where we took some pictures and spent some extra time loving on Oscar.  My son was heart broken.  However, he learned something that day.


He learned that because we loved Oscar so much and he was suffering we had to let him go.  It was our duty as his owners and family to not let him suffer.  My son was old enough to make a decision about if he wanted to be present for the euthanasia.  He chose not to be there which I fully respected.  If he had chosen to be present however, I know that it would have been important to let him be there.


Personally, I believe that your children should be involved in the family decision prior to the euthanasia to the extent that their age and understanding level allows.  The input for a 4 year old will be different from an 8 year old and from a 16 year old.  Once they reach about the age of 8, I think that most children can handle making a decision on if they should be present for the euthanasia with guidance from their parents.  By about age 12 most children can make the decision for themselves.


Many parents I think feel that by not discussing the euthanasia prior and by not having the child present they are sparing them from pain and grief.  They feel that they are protecting their child.


I don’t agree with this sentiment. Conversely, I feel that this actually causes more intense feelings of loss because the child was not allowed to be part of the decision and to say goodbye.  Also, often times the child’s grief is worsened by a feeling of betrayal by the parents because they were not trusted to be part of the decision.


If our job as parents is to help our children to deal with sadness and grief and to understand love and death then what better way than to help them with the loss of a pet?  The loss of a pet as a child I believe teaches lifelong lessons that extend well beyond that moment.  It extends to the loss of a grandparent, death of people that they know or are part of the family, and even the loss of a parent or sibling.  It helps them understand mortality.  It helps them deal with the fact that ALL of us have a limited time on this earth.


It teaches them that death and dying are okay to talk about.  It teaches them not to be afraid of death, but to enjoy their life and the time that they have with those around them.


I don’t believe that every child should be present for the pets euthanasia.  I do believe even if they are not present for the euthanasia that they should still be allowed to say goodbye and to understand at the level they are capable why this decision was made.


We can help our children to grow into emotionally mature adults who will be able to discuss death and to explore their grief in a healthy way throughout their life.  It starts with YOU as the parent.


- Dr. Sarah Whitley




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