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How to help your child cope with the loss of a pet

Losing a pet can be a child’s first experience of death in their family, and they can find it incredibly hard to understand the concept.

Below are our top tips on talking to your child and helping them to understand the concept of their pet dying or having to be to be euthanised.

When you speak to your child remember to be honest and to keep the information age appropriate.

There can be times when you can try and prepare your child for your pets passing. This might involve discussions on euthanasia. These points may be helpful when preparing your child:

  1. Explain to your child why it is their pet’s best interests to be euthanised. You can explain that their pet is very sick or old and that it is no longer fair that their pet feels so poorly.
  2. Explain the importance of why it is not kind to allow animals to suffer. Children may find it hard to make the link between a pet suffering and how unkind it is on the animal involved. You could say that once a pet is too old or too sick, they find it very hard to be happy, and that it is kinder to let the vet end their suffering.
  3. Sometimes the term “put to sleep” may be confusing as their pet will not wake up. It is important to let children know that it cannot be reversed – and it is very different to what happens when we go to sleep. With this in mind you should possibly avoid using the expression or prepare your child as others will undoubtedly use the expression during the process.
  4. Explain what will happen, adapt this to keep it as age appropriate as possible: At the time of euthanising a pet, the vet will need to inject a drug into the pet’s vein, this is usually located in the front leg. The injection is a high dose of anaesthetic drug which will cause the pets heart to slow gradually and stop. It is usually very peaceful, and your pet will look like is it drifting off to sleep. It is important to note that your pet’s eyes will remain open and this can be upsetting for children.
  5. Children are all different, sometimes it may not be appropriate to let children be present at the time of euthanasia, this will be up to the adults involved. We would recommend having a discussion with your vet to determine what is best for the child and the animal involved.

These points may be helpful on the day of your appointment:

  1. Allow your child time to say goodbye, do not rush them and allow them to speak openly about their feelings.
  2. Be open about whether you will be bringing your pet home for burial, whether you will be leaving your pet with the veterinary practice or sending the pet for cremation. You may or may not be requesting that the pet’s ashes are returned. You should prepare for how you want your pet’s remains to be treated and what you think is best for the family. This may seem difficult to discuss but if a child thinks they are burying their pet at home and subsequently learns that this is not the case they may become upset or feel let down.
  3. Some parents may be surprised by the way their child reacts, some young children may seem completely fine knowing they are losing a pet, they may even immediately ask if they can have a new animal. It is important not to tell the child off for this and you should certainly not be disappointed by any unexpected reaction of indifference – all children are unique and it may well be their own way of coping with the situation.

These points apply for both after your appointment or if your pet sadly passes away at home:

  1. Allow your child to speak about how they feel, listen to them and never belittle their feelings. To a child even the smallest of pets may hold great significance, allowing a child to grieve is important. You can try using phrases like “It is alright to be sad”.
  2. Explain why your pet has passed away. Think carefully before using expressions such as ‘put to sleep’ (as mentioned above), and don’t tell your child your pet is lost, this can cause your child confusion. Explain that their pet will not feel any pain in death.
  3. Why not get your child to write a letter or draw a picture of their pet, afterwards discuss the letter and drawing and speak about all the fun they had with their pet.

It is important as adults and parents to understand that children cannot control their emotions in the same way adults do, it can be a difficult and emotional experience for them. Children should be allowed to speak about their pet, how they are feeling, and it is very important that your child can grieve.

Your veterinary practice may be able to offer more advice on how to approach this difficult time with your child. Above all make sure your child remembers all the good times they had with their pet.