In the doghouse

Features - March 22nd, 1974

by Dr. Herb Friedman

The subject all too often comes up about how to tell young children about the death of a pet. Unfortunate as these events are, they do occur as all living things are equally and extremely sus­ceptible. As a veterinarian in the U.S., I have often had the sad task of telling a pet-owner of the demise of his pet.

I personally think this is the worst part of medicine, veterinary or otherwise. Some people do not have children and the pet takes that special role a child would have in the home.

Many older people keep pets for companionship where­as young families very often want a pet specifically for their children. An older per­son is usually mature and although the grief is not diminished merely because of maturity, at least the per­son involved can try and be rational about the situation.

However, it is most diffi­cult to explain death to a young child. If the tot is too young, probably the ab­sence of the pet will not be noticed to any large de­gree and the sadness from the loss will be short.

Children of early school years will have to be given some explanation of the loss, however. In America, I often discussed with other veterinarians how to handle this sad situation. I believe it most unfeeling simply to tell a child bluntly his or her pet has died.

After a certain age, the story that the pet was sum­moned to “doggy or kitty heaven” is not acceptable. I handle the situation in this fashion: If the pet is very old or suffering from a severe condition that leads me to believe its days are numbered, I tell the children the pet is very sick and will have to stay in the hospital where we will do everything possible to make the animal better.

I present the “people an­alogy” in that sick people go to the hospital because doctors are able to do a much better job there than they can in the home. This is readily acceptable and palatable to the child.

Then, after all medical or surgical aid (if any is under­taken) has been given and the animal either dies or has to be “put to sleep,” I ex­plain to the child (or pre­ferably have the parent ex­plain) that the pet went to sleep and did not wake up.

I assure the child that the pet suffered no pain and try to associate “sleep” with the common natural phenomenon —not something sudden and sad. I believe that if the a child knows that his pet went to the doctor because it was very sick; that after the doctor tried his best to make the pet letter, the pet went to sleep without any pain. Then the situation be­comes less emotional and one in which a younger semi-mature child can accept.

I don’t mean to take over the role of n psychologist be­cause I lack the credentials, but I am definitely strongly against presenting to a child the cruel facts of life with which at a young age he or she is unable to cope with or understand.