Written by Doctor G

What to Say to Kids When a Pet is Dying

older petMy 9 and 7 year old grandsons have a family dog who is in decline and the inevitable will be faced in the next year. We have talked about how old she is getting, and frail, and they are very careful when they take her out. The oldest boy is especially sensitive/anxious at times. What is the best way to handle this for them: 1) have her put to sleep in her home with them there. In that event, a) allow them to participate in the decision or b) just present it as: we must do this for her, now is the time. 2) have her put to sleep in her home and have them come home to her there, no preplanning with them as if she died in her sleep. 3) Make the decision as a family and take her to the vet without them. 4) Do it and tell them after. I am very involved with the family and know whatever I recommend will be the approach used. Thanks in advance,

Donna, in MI   

Donna, no one has sent me a multiple choice quiz before, you’ve done half my work for me!

Seriously though, it sounds like you’ve thought this through from a lot of angles. Let me ask you this: what are your goals for the kids? It sounds like

  • You want your grandchildren to have some kind of role in this chapter of the family’s life.
  • This dog is close to the end of her life, with more suffering on the horizon.
  • Your 9 year old grandson struggles with being resilient often. If you want to build resilience then truth is your greatest asset.

If this is the case, here are my suggestions.

  1. Adults need to make the grown-up decisions. It is not appropriate to give kids these ages a “vote” in whether or not it is time to put a beloved pet to sleep. Developmentally, they are not ready for that burden.
  2. Do let the boys know beforehand that the dog will be put to sleep in the next few days and have some conversations about why, be ready for anger, pleading, sadness. Show empathy without changing your mind.
  3. Do give the boys some “power” in some of the details. Ask:
    1. Would you like to be there as she dies?
    2. Do you think she should pass away at home or at the vet’s office? Why?
    3. What music do you think she might like? What toys or pillows should we bring to her?
    4. What would you like to do with or for her to say goodbye before she dies?
    5. Respect their wishes as much as possible.

This is a traumatic experience, but a really important one. Protecting kids from this kind of pain now does not really serve them in the long run. Though a nine year old maybe be happier in the short term, he will miss out on the lessons he needs to handle grief later in life.

I wish you joy in this last bit of time with your dog.

Anyone else have experience involving kids in the loss of a pet?


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