SHOULD MY KIDS BE PRESENT WHEN MY PET IS EUTHANIZED?
by Kari Trotsky, D.V.M.
Peaceful Endings for Pets
At-home Hospice and Euthanasia for Dogs and Cats
This is a question I get asked a lot. I am not a child psychologist, but I will give you my opinion based on:
- My experiences of being a veterinarian for over 17 years
- My experiences providing at-home euthanasia for the past 4 years
- My research from what experts say on this topic
- The experiences of other veterinarians in this field
- And, what parents who have gone through this with their own children had to say about it afterwards.
As always, do not substitute anyone’s opinion for your own. Children are all unique, and you know your child better than anyone.
How old should children be when they are present for their pet’s euthanasia?
First of all, nothing scary happens, so kids will not witness anything that can be deemed traumatizing to view. At Peaceful Endings for Pets, a pet is first given a sedative which allows them to gradually fall asleep in 5-10 minutes. At this point, the pet isn’t able to feel anything or be aware of anything (although I believe pets can still feel the love surrounding them); the euthanasia solution is given and causes the transition in just a few minutes. The pet passes peacefully, and seems to just slip away to the Rainbow Bridge.
As far as the age, without a doubt, children 8 years and above are old enough to “get it.” They are able to grasp the fact that the pet is ailing and likely have already asked questions about what happens next. You should answer their questions in terms that they comprehend. For example, they may not understand the particular disease process your pet is going through so simply saying that the pet is sick, doesn’t feel well, won’t get better, and is starting to feel pain are all appropriate. Never say that the pet will be “put to sleep.” Some kids may take this literally and associate going to sleep with death.
Kids 4 years and under don’t understand much at this age and sometimes it’s easier on the adults if someone else is watching the kids so the parents can be fully present for the pet’s passing. Five-year-olds are too young to understand everything, but will know certain things such as the pet is sick, the pet won’t get better, and the pet is not here anymore. They are more easily distracted with activities during the procedure, such as coloring or drawing. They will see other family members crying and may feel sad from that, but will often get back to their normal routine as quickly as days, up to a week or two.
Ages 6 and 7 are a little bit of a gray area. A 6 year old will act similarly to a 5 year old, but will likely have a greater attachment to the pet, will understand a little bit more as to why this is happening (pet is in pain and we have the ability to relieve it), and will empathize a little bit more with the other family members crying or being sad. Along the same lines, a 7 year old may be able to grasp almost everything an 8 year old does, but may be a little bit more basic. They may not know what questions to ask, but will still appreciate the answers. Their attachment to the pet will likely be high also.
Why should children even be present during a euthanasia?
I know that it’s very hard to see your child in pain, and telling them the truth will certainly cause them pain. But resist trying to “spare” them by not telling them until afterwards, when the pet is already out of the house, or telling them the pet went away to live on a farm, or is otherwise “okay.” You’re never going to be able to shield them from all pain in their lives. Death is unfortunately part of life and sometimes this is your child’s first experience with it. Grief and mourning are a part of death, and there’s no way to circumvent it. If a child is shown that it’s okay to cry and be sad or angry, and is also shown healthy ways to get through it (e.g. making a scrapbook of the pet, drawing pictures of the pet, writing a story or a song, raising money to donate to a shelter in memory of the pet), then they will have a much better chance of becoming well-adjusted adults. They will know how to accept difficult things out of their control, and not seek unhealthy coping methods such as alcohol or drugs to mask the pain, or substituting work or other activities to avoid pain.
As this might be children’s first experience with death, it also gives them the life experience they will need if somebody around them passes tragically or through illness (family member, friend). They will learn that life goes on, and they will eventually smile and have fun again. They will learn to value life, realize the meaning of spending quality time with people they care about, and how to keep memories alive in their heart. It’s okay to bring up the pet in conversation now and then. Sometimes, something will happen to make you think of your pet, which may cause sadness and tears. Or, you may remember something funny or amazing that the pet did and feel happy about it. It can also teach a child that even though pets’ lives are much shorter than ours, and it can be very painful to lose them, the whole time in between was worth it.
A client once scheduled her Golden Retriever’s euthanasia at the end of the week and asked me if she should tell her 8 year old son, because she was having doubts he could handle it. I told her she should definitely tell him. When I arrived at their home 4 days later, I saw a sweet dog lying on the ground, unable to rise due to severe arthritic pain, greeting me by wagging her tail. All around the room were pictures of the pet and family drawn in crayon and posted near the base of the walls, at eye-level with the pet. I said, “You must have taken my advice and told your son what was happening today.” She replied, “Yes. And although he couldn’t be here due to school, he didn’t want his dog to feel alone, so he drew pictures so she could see him.” “That’s very sweet,” I said. She stopped and responded, “Telling him she was going to be euthanized today was the right answer. When I sat him down and explained what was happening, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said thank you, mom, for telling me, because if I didn’t get a chance to tell her ‘I Love You’ one last time, I would have been very upset for a very long time.” Although this was a sad and difficult event, Mom felt at peace with all of her decisions.