View Full Version : Advice needed. How to explain putting a pet to sleep to a 4-year old.

10-01-2007, 11:43 AM
Our family dog, Buck, has bone cancer. He is unable to use one of his legs at all and is in pain. Short of amputation, there is nothing else we can do for him. We agree with the vet that amputation is not a good option for him since he is 11 years old. We have made the painful decision to put him to sleep. It is the final, kind thing we can do for him. :(

The vet will come to our house on Saturday. My DH feels strongly that Buck should just go to sleep on his bed at home and I agree. I really want to be with DH to support him and Buck. Our DD is 4 and will be at home, too. Unfortunately, we don't have any family or friends nearby to entertain her for the afternoon. How on earth will we explain Buck's death to her? It is going to be so emotional for DH and me. I am tearing up just typing this.

Does anyone have any experience with this? I appreciate any advice you can offer.

10-01-2007, 11:51 AM
I don't have specific experience with this, but have had to have several discussions over the past year and a half with the weeone about cancer and death. My advice is to be as honest and frank as possible. I explained to DD, then 4, that my friend Karen had a special kind of cancer that would not get better. I was very up front with her that Karen would die from this. Depending on your religious viewpoint, you may or may not want to include a discussion about God's plan for us, etc. When Karen was near the end, I did take the weeone to the hospital to visit even though Karen was unconscious. She did remarkably well with it. Children are amazing with the things that freak adults out. I think you'll be surprised. Make sure she knows that it's okay to be sad, but it's also good to remember the happy times. I'll bet you'll find she understands it all much more than you expect.

I'm sorry you're losing your dear friend, and hope you can find some comfort in the memories of the good times with him.

10-01-2007, 11:58 AM
Oh, I am so, so sorry for your upcoming loss. My heart goes out to you.

I agree with what Terri_A said, and have some suggestions to help with the practical aspects of having a 4-year-old around when you're euthanizing a pet.

Can you bring your dog to the vet, and still hold him and be with him? (I know you said your DH feels strongly about not doing so; it's just an option but the trip may be too hard on Buck anyway.) When my old cat became seriously ill this summer, I knew that the trip to the emergency animal clinic might be her last. My older kids knew what I might have to do (we didn't discuss it till later, but they'd heard of euthanasia for pets); my youngest child didn't. I told all the kids that the kitty was so seriously ill that there was a chance she might die right there at the vet. My children, including the youngest, had the chance to say goodbye, and prepare a little bit. When I returned home with our kitty, we buried her in the back yard by a flowering tree. I didn't have to bring up the subject of euthanasia at all with my youngest child. It'll probably come up at some point, but it didn't have to at that time.

If your vet really needs to come to the house, then you might try the same approach: you could say that Buck is too sick to make the trip to the vet to see if the vet can help him, so the nice vet is going to come to the house. You might say that Buck is so sick that he may be dying, and have your DD hug and kiss Buck and say goodbye. What if you added that Buck may want privacy with his doctor just the way your DD and a parent have privacy at the pediatrician; so, let's go rent a video that you can watch during Buck's doctor visit, so that you can give Buck the privacy that a sick dog might want with his doctor? I hate to use the electronic babysitter, but if that's the only option . . . another one might be to use the same "privacy" idea but (better idea) have your DD draw pictures that Buck might enjoy, "until the big hand is on the 3" or whatever--she'll be occupied, and will feel that she's doing something constructive. Pictures of things she and Buck did together, for example, might be comforting to her, and she can choose to keep them or to bury them with Buck.

I am very sorry that you have to make this hard decision. :(

10-01-2007, 12:00 PM
I have experience in terms of my niece and the death of her father at age 5 -- obviously not quite the same thing.

At this age -- 5 and under, a child can not comprehend death as "forever". There is quite a nice book aimed at this age group called The Story of Ferdinand which deals with the cycles of life -- I do recommend it.


Personally I don't think it necessary for a child to view the actual death -- which actually doesn't take very long as I helped my friend with her dog's euthanasia.

I do think a ceremony at the child's level of understanding is helpful as a way of saying goodbye. As to specifics, that would depend on what you really believe in. I don't think it's particularly helpful to tell a child that a dog or person is in "heaven" unless one believes that.

My brother was cremated and released in nature -- my niece in her own ceremony released some balloons in the "universe."

On the very specific issue of euthanasia, I don't think I would tell a 4 year old as I don't think that it is necessary or that they are developmentally sophisticated enough to understand it fully. What purpose would telling them serve -- as opposed to telling them the animal was very sick and died?

10-01-2007, 12:10 PM
This is probably the wimps way out, but I have had to put two animals to sleep since I have had kids, and in both cases, I did not let the kids know that "we" had put them to sleep. One was our older dog who had been diagnosed with bone cancer. We were pain managing her for a while, putting off the inevitable, when we came home and found her not doing well at all. I can't remember the medical term for it, but her stomach had flipped while we were gone, and so she made the decision for us. The kids were not home that day, so we just told them that she had died. Of course they knew that she was older and had been sick, and we explained that to them as well, but I just thought they were too young to understand euthanasia.

The other was a young dog that had a birth defect that could not be fixed. She got really sick and the kids knew that we were taking her to the doctor. We ended up having to take her to the emergency room. We didn't take the kids with us, so when we got home we just explained the problem that she had and told them that there was nothing the doctors could do to fix her and that she just passed away peacefully. They were probably ages 7 & 10 at the time and I just thought again, it was a hard concept for them to grasp.

Now that they are older, I think I would tell them that sometimes it's the humane thing to do when an animal is suffering, etc. etc. and I think at their ages now, they would understand it.

I'll let others tell you what they think is best, but that is how we handled it in our house.

10-01-2007, 12:19 PM
A couple of thoughts although I haven't had to tell kids about this specifically. First, don't use the term "put to sleep". At that age she may think that if she goes to sleep that she won't wake up. If you believe in heaven maybe you could say the doctor is going to help your dog "go to heaven". Also, it might be nice if you guys went through your pictures of your dog and chose a special one to put in a frame for her.

10-01-2007, 12:32 PM
I have many opinions (and specific training) on this. I have dealt with this from the doctor end multiple times this past month alone (the having to tell kids...)

In short--
be honest
don't use "sleep"
give her the option and respect her wishes (even at 4)
if she stays, talk to your vet about their exact procedure and explain in advance (including urination/defaction/last gasp that are all reflexes, not an awareness)

go here for more ideas

check your PMs

10-01-2007, 12:46 PM
I am so sorry you are going through this.

I would talk to your vet (and the vets here:) ) about exactly what the euthanasia process will be like. Someone correct if I am wrong - my understanding is that some of the reflexes involved are not painful or uncomfortable to the pet, but could still appear disturbing (especially to a young child). As much as you and DH would both like to be with your dog and each other during this process, it is more important for one of you to stay with your child.

I think you can be honest with your DD that the dog was very sick and died. Four-year-olds probably don't really grasp what this means. I know my 7yo still doesn't have a really good grip on it, but some kids her age do. What I have done (both when pets have died and when a close family member died) is to just be honest with my kids but take my lead from them in terms of what, when and how much to say.

I hope Buck has peaceful days this week.

10-01-2007, 12:47 PM
I'm so sorry you're going through this. ((()))

We euthanized our cat when my DD was 4 (about 6 months ago). She knew he was sick because she went to the initial vet appointment (I didn't think that cat was that sick) and the cat was at the emergency vet clinic for the weekend.

When we made the decision we were able to drop the kids off at my sister's house. She knew we were going to say good-bye and wanted to go too.

*I* was devastated. It was very difficult for me and pretty hard for my DH as well.

At that age she understood enough about death - didn't expect him to come back. What most affected her was how upset I was. I'm glad I could grieve at first by myself and quite honestly feeling the life leave my cat - it's not something I would want my DD to have been around for. I cried for quite awhile when he died.

We found it important to be very specific about the illness - not just that he was "very sick" - but what was wrong with him. this way she doesn't think anytime she (or us) are sick that we could die. Lainey also asked very specific and practical questions - "what about the crate we'd taken the cat to the vet in?"

Someone recommended a book and I can't remember the title at all. It was about a cat that had died and the child listed their favorite things about the cat. We made a list (mostly me as she really was more upset about me and not the cat). If I recall correctly, she went with DH to pick up the cat's ashes when they were ready.

I don't know your family but for us - I absolutely wouldn't have them present when we euthanized our pets. It has more to do with me and my needs to be able to grieve and not be Mommy at that time than with what they can handle.


10-01-2007, 12:55 PM
First, I'd like to say I'm sorry for what you're going through. I know it's hard.

We had to have our dog Sister euthanized this spring. We were completely up front with our girls, ages 5 and 7 at the time. They understood what was going to happen and had the opportunity to ask all the questions they wanted/needed to--both of the vet and of DH and me. They stayed with her when the vet gave her the shot to sedate her and pet her and talked to her as she was going to sleep. They both chose to leave the room when the vet gave her the shot that would actually kill her, though.

Our dog was pretty sick, and it was completely clear to everyone, including our children, that she was in pain, that her body was tired, and that she wasn't able to do the things that dogs do to have a good life. Even at ages 5 and 7, they understood that what we were doing was out of love, and that keeping her alive might be what *we* wanted, but that Sister wouldn't be comfortable or happy.

We were all sad, and we all cried, but I wouldn't say it was traumatic. It was just part of our life. My older daughter still thinks about Sister often, writes stories about her, and sometimes, if she's feeling particularly tired or fragile, she'll cry and say that she misses Sister. But I think that's all normal and good. Sad, but good.

Good luck to you, and again, my sympathies.

10-01-2007, 01:11 PM
Someone recommended a book and I can't remember the title at all. It was about a cat that had died and the child listed their favorite things about the cat. We made a list (mostly me as she really was more upset about me and not the cat). If I recall correctly, she went with DH to pick up the cat's ashes when they were ready.

The book is The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst.

10-01-2007, 01:42 PM
Our 15 year old died in the kitchen this summer. She was going to the vet the next day because she had not been on her feet for 3 days by then, but I was waiting for Scott to fly home so I wouldn't have to take Robin.

Holly was at camp, but had been told to not expect the dog to still be alive when she got home.

Anyway, Robin (4) was already asleep when she actually died, but the next morning she saw her under the blanket and recognized that she had gone to Doggie Heaven where Dogs get to play with Jesus and aren't sick anymore.

If you have religion, use it - it can make things easier.


10-01-2007, 02:27 PM
I'm so sorry you're going through this...it's hard enough to have to deal with your own grief, I can't imagine having to save face in front of a child. I know that I will be absolutely devastated when it comes time for my dogs.

I am a vet, and we deal with this a lot. You have gotten great advice so far, and I don't have much to add except to emphasize that you should be prepared for the final muscular reflexes after Buck's heart has stopped beating. Many animals take deep gasping breaths and this can be very upsetting to see. I always warn owners about this before I give the injection, and tell them that it is simply a muscle reflex responding to a sudden depleton of oxygen, but that the animal actually lost consciousness before that. I think it helps to think of it as a purely chemical reaction, as opposed to a sign of pain or struggling.

Also, I agree that it's best to be honest with your DD. Some kids are much more adult about this than we think they can be! She doesn't necessarily have to be present, but she should know that the vet is helping to make Buck comfortable while he's dying.

Finally, don't tell her that Buck is going up into the clouds. My own coworker (a vet) told his young kids that their dog was going to live in the clouds...later that year they flew to Disneyland and the kid spent the whole plane flight looking in the clouds for the dog. :o

Best wishes. Please feel free to ask more questions.

10-01-2007, 02:50 PM
I don't have kids so won't comment on that.
we had a vet come our house to put down our Dobie when it was clear he was suffering and there was no chance left. It was very, very difficult holding him and watching the injection, and the last gasp, knowing full well he was in pain and it was the kindest thing to do. DH & I held it together while the vet was there but as soon as he left we totally lost it and cried uncontrollably. It was much, much worse for both of us than deaths of even close family members. we've had to put down two kitties since then and have chosen not to be in the room to watch. I'm not a wimp, we are both medical people, but the images stayed with us for a long time and I'd rather remember my pets in health rather than death. In short, it was very difficult for us and some children ( and some adults) might be better off not watching the whole thing.

10-01-2007, 03:23 PM
It all depends on the child. My kids were about 2 and 3 when my cat died. He was beat up by a couple of dogs. He came home for about a week since the vet thought he was actually improving. However, he got a bit worse and I ended up bringing him back to the vet and making the decision on my own to put him down. He was 17 and his old body just couldn't fight anymore. However, my kids thought that the cat was living with the vet and getting better there. I had to explain a few times that kitty wasn't coming home. They finally understood and they did ask questions, which I answered as honestly as possible.

DD understands that death is a part of life. DS is terrified of death and doesn't like the topic at all. But they both still have questions on it.

Another note on the shot- DD understands that animals get a shot that puts them "to sleep". However, she does as me now about pets getting shots when the subject comes up. She's a bit confused about other shots (vaccinationsfor pets and people) and the difference between a vaccination and actually putting an animal down. We recently got kittens which brought up the "shot" question. Again, I try to be specific and factual with her when she asks questions. Sometimes it leads to more questions, but so be it.

Good luck. I know it's not an easy thing. As mentioned, though, children will surprise you with their understanding and compassion. I'm sure things will be just fine.

10-02-2007, 07:59 AM
Thank you all so much for your kind words and support.

We have decided to do as many of you have suggested and be completely honest with DD, but not allow her to be present for the actual death. She and I will say our goodbyes to Buck together and I will take her out of the room when the final injection is given. Thank you to those of you who mentioned the final muscular spasms. I was not aware of that, although it makes sense. I am afraid that would be too disturbing for her and honestly, me too.

Blazedog, I read The Story of Ferdinand as a child, but forgot about it. I agree that it is a great book for children and adults, too. Thank you for the reminder.

Mcgeiger, thank you for the links. I am going to order a couple of the books listed.

Kim, I am most worried about the effects of my grief on DD. I get so emotional just thinking about Buck that I am afraid that I am going to totally lose it when the time comes. Obviously, I am going to tell DD that we are all very sad and it is OK to cry. I guess all I can do is hope for grace, peace and acceptance on Saturday.

Oddly enough, Buck seemed most himself last night. He really is such a happy soul. He hasn't had much of an appetite lately, but did eat some of DH's ice cream. :)

Again, thank you to all who have responded with your advice and personal stories. I know I can always come here for the best of both.

10-02-2007, 08:18 AM
Another wonderful book I'd recommend is "Dog Heaven." It's a children's book, but I've given it to many adults in recent years. It's wonderful.

Beth Y
10-02-2007, 06:59 PM
I have two 5 year olds and a 9 year old. In the past 3 years or so, they have helped care for three dying grandparents (all lived very near us) as well as our cat and just today I had to put my dog (okay, the family dog, but she was mine for three years before I got married) to sleep. Like yours, she had cancer and was 14.

So to say I have been through this is an understatement. I am getting WAY too used to death. As I told a friend recently, I feel like I can smell it when it is near I have been on so many deathbeds recently.

Anyway, I agree with many previous posters who have told you not to underestimate your child. They get WAY MORE than we think they do. Do not make up stories about where the dog is going or whatever. Be very honest about what is going on. I agree that you also don't have to be brutally honest. My little ones don't really know that we had the animals "put down" but just that she was dying and is now dead. Make sure they know it is coming. Answer all questions as honestly and simply as you can. Make sure they understand that you are sad/upset. I have been moping around all day and my oldest just comes up and holds me and pats my head when she sees me.

As we dealt with cancer and alzhimer's in our aging parents, our kids saw way more than i would have liked them to. And I have consistently been amazed by their simple concern and understanding of it all. I could go on all day about ways that my kids were able to connect with our parents in their final days in ways that we could not.
I think this just goes to show that kids need to be allowed to understand what is going on and deal with it in their on way...because they will.

I do have to warn you.....do not be upset if your child asks, after your dog is gone "when can we get a new one". I have lots of friends that are losing dogs lately (our single days dogs) and everyone one says that the first question out of at least one of their childrens' mouths has been "can we get a new dog/cat". I know my son did this afternoon.

Hang in there. I know how hard it is.

10-03-2007, 08:17 PM
Just wanted to say how sorry I am for you and your loss. Debralynn