EUTHANASIA: What do you tell the kids?

Every week we have to put animals to sleep, usually because they are ill and suffering. Each month, an owner asks me for advice on what to tell the children. Should they be there? What should we tell them? How do we make them understand? Many times this is a result of the parents not really knowing how they feel about the whole thing, so they are worried about the kids.

In a nutshell, the answer is simple. BE HONEST. I am always impressed by how well children understand and respond to these very difficult situations. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for and know more than we think. I have seen parents try to soften the whole experience by altering the truth, but that generally backfires.

Tell the children the truth and you will all grow from the experience. I am a father first and a veterinarian second, and I have dealt with this in my own family. 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. That is why it is called "humane euthanasia". It is a simple injection, very peaceful and painless, and 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 a parent is hysterical, the children will be the same. If the parents are truly sad, and dealing with the sadness in a healthy and thoughtful manner, the children will follow their example. This is truly a case of being a role model. The kids don't have Michael Jordan with them when this happens, they have the real role models in their lives there, their parents. So be strong and mature in your sorrow, and your children will have great respect for you. And this goes for children as young as 3 or 4 years of age. It will surprise you at what a young age kids are able to handle such a tough situation.

One thing I want you to keep in mind that I find very comforting; if you are putting your beloved pet to sleep for the right reasons, I tell my clients "it is OK to feel sad, but don't feel guilty". These are two very different emotions. You should feel sad. Your children can feel the sadness. But don't mix guilt in with the sadness. One emotion is healthy, the other terribly burdensome.

Finally, in general it is my opinion that children need not be present during the procedure. I donŐt mind the adults being present if they prefer, but I find it a difficult process - especially for younger children. Allow them to say goodbye at home, and, if possible, have one parent then take them out for the day while the other one takes the pet to the veterinarian. Or have the whole family drop the pet off, say good bye, then leave together or have one parent remain. Take my advice on this one. I have never felt that younger children benefit by being in the room at the time of euthanasia.

I will relate a real life experience to you regarding my favorite cat of all time, CJ. She slept each night with my young daughter, Erin. We knew CJ had kidney problems, so we began the discussion with Erin that one day, because she was older, CJ's kidneys would eventually give out, and we might have to make the decision to put her to sleep. It is my experience that kids really do understand death, even at a very young age.

CJ eventually became quite ill. Knowing the end was near, we all went to the hospital to visit her, tell her we loved her, and say goodbye. The kids knew we were going to try and help her, but the chances were slim. We all cried in the room, out of sadness, not guilt. When we left the hospital my associate called an hour later to tell me that CJ was not doing well and I gave her permission to euthanize her. Erin asked if we could have her ashes back after we had her cremated and we agreed. CJ's ashes are in Erin's room even years later. Every once in a while she says she misses CJ and starts to swell up with tears. That's okay, I miss her too and still swell up a bit myself. It is a healthy dose of real life emotion. But after a few minutes it passes (probably easier for Erin than for me). And it is really cute when she has a sleep over with her friends. She often says, "do you want to see my cat CJ?" and is very proud as she takes out the plastic box with the ashes and boldly tells the story of how CJ had to be put to sleep because she had bad kidneys and was very sick. It is amazing how almost every one of the kids sleeping over relates a similar story that happened in their family. It is then that I know we have done a good job.

Honesty. Clearly the best medicine for kids and their parents.

Dr. Larry


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