Ask the Vet - Handling Euthanasia
Our family cat, Sammy, is 15 years old and has cancer. After many unsuccessful treatments, our veterinarian has recommended euthanasia. How do we explain this to our young children?
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. It is a simple injection, very peaceful and painless, and if you really love a pet you have to make these kinds of decisions.
Your children will feed off of how you as the parent react. If the parents are 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. So be strong and mature in your sorrow, and your children will have great respect for you. 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 that it is okay 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 don’t 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 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 goodbye, and 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.
Just remember that honesty is clearly the best medicine for kids and their parents.