By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services
Dear Dr. Mike,
Our family will sadly need to put our sick dog down soon. The kids know the dog is sick, and we have told them he might die soon. Should we tell them he died naturally, or we euthanized him? My children are 6, 8, and 11, and I am unsure of the psychological impact this will have on them — knowing we willingly euthanized their beloved pet, even though profoundly sick. Do kids have the ability to understand a humane gesture like this?
Dear Concerned Parent,
There is no doubt that the loss of your family pet will be a sad moment in your house. For your children, their dog is a member of the family who has brought them companionship, love, and great joy, and saying goodbye to him will be difficult.
Your children have already begun the process of saying goodbye to their dog by knowing that he is sick and might die soon, so your next step should be to prepare them for it.
At 6, 8, and 11, all three of your children understand the concept of death but in different ways intellectually due to where they are developmentally. Your younger children rely more on black-and-white or concrete thinking and will likely not be able to grasp what death means entirely — i.e., the finality of death or the meaning of one’s mortality, etc. Your 11-year-old, however, will have greater intellectual bandwidth to discuss the topic more openly and with more detail if he chooses to.
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But I do not think the question about whether to inform your children about euthanizing their dog or not needs to be burdensome for you or your children.
I think you should tell your children (age appropriately) that their dog is being euthanized. I recommend having a family meeting to update the children on where things are with their dog. During that talk, I would sensitively let them know that the veterinarian has done everything he or she can do to help their dog but that their dog will not get better. I would also let them know that the veterinarian has medicine that can help their dog end his life peacefully and without any added pain. I would add that giving their dog the medicine is the kindest and most loving thing they can do at this point.
I think it is also important to help your children take control of what they can take control of at this moment — how do they wish to say goodbye to their dog? Do you, as a family, want to have a burial or a ceremony, etc.?
Also, keep in mind that for children, the loss of a pet can be commensurate with the loss of an important person. Thus, helping your children process the loss of their dog will be important; and being extra affectionate, supportive, and available to them during the weeks following their dog’s passing is advised.
Regarding moving on, I also recommend that you help your children own their (and your own) feelings of sadness while also sharing your positive memories of their dog with the encouragement to remember him with love.