Euthanasia, Traumatic Losses and Other Circumstances

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There are certain unusual situations that may accompany the loss of a pet. Whether the pet dies or is no longer a part of a child’s life for any reason, that child will still experience grief.

The following list includes some examples of situations you may encounter. These should be addressed on an individual basis, according to each child’s needs and relationship with the pet, the nature of the loss and various other factors. Many of these situations may require professional guidance.

For all of these circumstances, we recommend that you:

  • Provide any measures of comfort that you can.
  • If necessary, seek professional help.
  • Acknowledge, allow and encourage the expression of feelings.
  • Answer questions honestly, but avoid graphic detail.
  • Set a positive example by expressing your own emotions, but avoid letting those emotions get in the way of supporting the child.
  • Address individual family members’ needs in a way that is best suited to each individual -- everyone grieves differently.

Euthanasia

Whether for age, health or behavior-related reasons, euthanasia is often a common part of pet death. Children who are old enough to think and speak for themselves are able to choose whether or not to be present for euthanasia, how to say goodbye, how to honor their pet’s memories and whether or not to view the pet’s body.

If children want to be present for the euthanasia of a pet, they need to be clearly told what will happen while they are in the room, what they will see, how their pet will look, feel and behave, and what is appropriate behavior after the pet dies (e.g., petting, hugging, crying or just spending time with the body).

Avoid saying:

  • “Put to sleep,” since children are “put to sleep” every night
  • “Lost,” since the child may hope the pet will be “found”

Words and phrases like “died,” “dead” and “helped to die” may seem harsh, but they help children clearly understand and accept the reality of the pet’s death


Pet Runs Away or Becomes Lost

When a pet runs away or accidentally gets loose, be sure to include the child in the search process through activities such as making fliers to hang in the neighborhood, local animal shelters and veterinary clinics.

In some cases, family members may be directly or inadvertently responsible for a pet getting lost through actions such as leaving the door ajar, forgetting to put a collar on or leaving a window open. Do your best to control blame, resentment and anger by encouraging open communication and empathy.

It is also important to prepare the child in advance for the possibility that the pet will not be found. If the pet is not found, it is important to recognize that pet loss has occurred to the child.


Accidental Pet Death

In some cases, a pet’s death may occur by accident. A child may have been the cause of death – through actions such as accidently dropping the pet, leaving a door ajar or dropping the leash. In such cases, feelings of guilt or shame may develop. In other cases, another family member may have been responsible, and you may see feelings of resentment or anger. Do your best to avoid negative feelings by discouraging blame or an “I told you so” attitude. Encourage open communication and empathy, and remind everyone that it was an accident. Acknowledge the child’s feelings (e.g., guilt, sadness, embarrassment) and process the incident with the child so that a positive experience or learning may occur.


Pet Is Killed in a Traumatic Manner

In some circumstances, regardless of the cause or reason behind the death, a pet may die in a traumatic manner, and the child may have witnessed it. For example, a pet may have a seizure, be hit by a car or be killed by another animal. Do your best to avoid sharing graphic details and encourage the child to express his or her feelings.


Pet Is Intentionally Killed in an Abusive Situation

Regardless of whether a pet or human is the target of the abuse, professional help must be sought for the child. This is not a situation to handle on your own, so be sure to contact local law enforcement and child protective services. Also contact a local animal welfare organization if there are other pets in the home.


Child and Pet No Longer Live Together

An often-overlooked example of pet loss occurs when a child is separated from a pet physically rather than through death.

One example occurs when a child leaves a home, therefore leaving the pet behind. For example, during divorce the child may live with one parent while the pet lives with another, or a child may be removed from a home and placed in the custody of another adult. In such cases, adults must recognize and acknowledge that -- to the child -- pet loss has occurred. Whenever possible, do your best to ensure the child is able to maintain some form of relationship with the pet through regular visits.
Another example occurs when a pet is given away for some reason, such as to another home or to an animal shelter. For example, the pet may have had to leave for behavioral problems, landlord restrictions, allergies or financial circumstances. This is another example of a case in which it is important that adults recognize that a child is experiencing pet loss. In particular, if the reason for giving up the pet is directly related to the child, it is important to reassure the child that there is nothing he or she did to cause the loss, and nothing the child could have done to prevent it. It is an individual decision as to whether you want to reveal where the pet went.

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