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need help explaining pet's death/euthanasia to 2 1/2 year old

post #1 of 6
Thread Starter 
One of our beloved family cats is extremely ill -- has been at the local emergency vet clinic for the last two days. They're not sure exactly what's wrong with him, but it's looking likely that he may not recover. If he continues to be in a lot of pain, we may decide to euthanize.

I'm trying to think through how to explain this to our 2 1/2 year old. This is a cat she spent a lot of time with and knew well. So far we've told her that he is very, very sick, and that his whole body hurts. She has seen me crying, and I've told her I'm sad because the cat is so sick, and that I really hope he will be able to get better.

I'm thinking that if euthanasia is the route we end up with, I probably won't even tell her that at this point. It feels like death is hard enough to understand when you're 2, let alone euthanasia. (Though I'm open to other opinions on this.)

So I'm thinking that what we'll need to explain is that our cat died. My concern is that if we say he got too sick and he couldn't get better, that she will find it very scary if she gets sick -- I don't want her to think that if she or one of her parents get a bad cold or flu, that we're going to die. She is already (long before this happened) very interested in sickness, and spends a lot of time pretending that her dolls and stuffed animals are sick.

We don't have strong religious beliefs that would lead us to tell her that the cat is going to be with God, etc.

Any advice on how to explain our cat's death without making the idea of "very sick" unnecessarily scary?

Also, so far she hasn't seen the cat since he's been ill. It was nighttime and she was asleep when I took him to the emergency vet, and I visited yesterday without her. We haven't decided whether to take her if one of us goes to visit him today. He is in a cage, pretty out of it, hooked up to an IV infusion pump. Should we take her to see him so he doesn't just "vanish"?

So far, she hasn't expressed any interest in seeing him, and honestly doesn't seem to care too much that he's sick and not at home.
post #2 of 6


I'm sorry to hear about your beloved cat. It's a very difficult situation to be in and I know that cats can stay sick and suffer for a long time before they die on their own. Euthanasia truly is the humane option in that case.

In the case of your DD, if she isn't asking to go see the cat, I wouldn't bring her. It might be very scary to her an not the way she wants to remember the cat. It might actually make her more scared of what is happening to the cat.

You didn't mention the age of your cat, but I will assume that she is a senior (12+). I would use that in explaining to your daughter. Something to the effect of: "Kitty was very old and got very sick. That sometimes happens when cats get old." I think that if you make it about age first and then sickness, it won't be as scary to her because she is still very young. Don't be surprised if she acts out getting sick and dying with her dolls. It sounds like she might use that to process it. Of course if this is a young cat, none of this will help!

You didn't mention this phrase, but as a Vet Tech, I wanted to mention avoided the phrase/term "put to sleep" or "went to sleep and didn't wake up." I know of children that then become very scared to fall asleep for fear that they will die in their sleep.

My thoughts are with your family.
post #3 of 6
Thread Starter 
Thanks for your thoughts, TeaJunkie.

Our cat is only 4, so unfortunately, the idea that he got old doesn't help too much here.

We did bring DD with us when we visited him today (before I read your message). I was concerned that if we do need to euthanize, that she should at least get to see the intermediate step of a very sick cat, rather than having him just vanish one night and never return. The visit was OK. It's hard to know what she thought -- she didn't seem traumatized or upset by it. She did agree that he wasn't acting the way he usually does -- we talked about how he was too sick to walk around or meow or eat or purr, etc.

It's interesting -- maybe the fact that she doesn't seem to be missing him much will make this much easier for her than I fear (it's sure not easy for me!!!). I guess it's possible that we'll be able to tell her he died, he's not here anymore, and we miss hm, and that will be that.

I still welcome anyone else's advice or experience with this subject and kids this age!
post #4 of 6
I actually went through this recently with our dog.

*8 month old pomeranian...we suspect she was picked up by a bird and then dropped. Her spinal cord was severely damaged and we decided to have her euthanized *

My son is a bit younger, he turned 2 in April, but we just tell him that Carly is gone or Carly died and that is satisfactory for him. He's asked about her a few times...but he accepts it when we tell him that she's not here. We gave DD (5 yrs) the big long explanation, but we knew that DS wouldn't "get it". I agree that avoiding the term "put to sleep" is wise. I think that you could say that the cat was sick, but stress that it was a special type of sickness that is very bad and is for cats.

I'm so sorry that your family is going through this. It's heart-breaking. I was 12 when I lost my first pet so I was COMPLETELY unprepared to address this as a parent of a 5 yr old and a 2 yr old.

post #5 of 6
When I was four, my parents had to have their dog put to sleep. They just told me that "Something very sad happened today. Vector died." and I just accepted that and was not particularly traumatized.

I am sorry that you are going through this.
post #6 of 6
I went through this exact scenerio with my DS last summer. My cat was 12 years old, and DS was 2.5. She was extremely sick, and had surgery and ended up in a coma after the anesthetic wore off. I ended up picking DS up at daycare and bringing him in with me. I told him that our cat was VERY sick, and her body wasn't working any more and we were going to her doctor to help her to die. He was right there for the entire thing and was able to give her a little cuddle before the vet gave her the shot of euthanasia and then we took her body down to a little bench right at his level and he was able to cuddle her and really *see* that she was dead.

Children really have no fear of death. We as adults are the ones that put the idea that death is scary and something to avoid. He handled it beautifully, and asked all kinds of really great questions. We talked about how she wasn't breathing anymore, she wouldn't be able to eat anymore, and her body wasn't working. He went with me to bury her and watched her go into a hole in the ground and saw her body covered up with dirt. He saw me cryinging and asked why and I said I was sad that she had died and that I missed her.

Now almost a year later, he still talks about the whole experience and I am SOOOOO grateful that I included him. I was so scared that I was going to scar him for life with the whole experience, but he talks occasionally about how he misses her and that she was very sick and then her body couldn't work any more and we buried her in the ground. He even went with me to the vet with our other cat, and asked me if he was sick. I said, he was a little sick, but not as sick as the other one, and he seemed satisfied with that.

I would highly encourage you to bring your LO with you and let them help you through this process as you help her through it. It is so sweet to be able to talk about it with them rather than hide it. I bet it will not be nearly as traumatic as you fear it might be.
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