- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

Dr. Candace Olson, a veterinarian, deals with elderly pets all the time. She often counsels families as they are facing the death of a beloved pet.

That didn't make it any easier when her own children were grieving the loss of their dogs.

"When my kids were 3 and 5, our Yorkies, who were 12 and 14, died on the same day," says Dr. Olson, who works at Greenbriar Animal Hospital in Fairfax. "That was tough to explain, and for about 18 months they still asked when the dogs were coming home. It was a lot harder a few years later, when our golden retriever, Jason, died. He wasn't even that sick yet. The kids were 5 and 7. They had grown up with that dog."

Pet lovers usually treat their dogs and cats like members of the family. When those pets eventually become ill and die, it often is the first time youngsters have had to deal with mortality.

"Pets are family members," says Carolyn Butler, who teaches veterinary students how to deal with the emotional aspects of pet ownership at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Ms. Butler helps train animal doctors to understand the emotional needs of pet-owning families.

"Animals have one-fifth the lifespan of humans," she says. "Anyone who loves pets is going to go through this at some point."

There are a few basic ideas families should keep in mind when they know a pet's time is limited, Ms. Butler says. Even if the pet must be euthanized, there is a way to explain that to children in uncomplicated terms, she says.

"The overall theme should be to be honest at a level that is appropriate to the child's development," Ms. Butler says. "Don't fall into the trap of lying."

In many cases, parents want to protect their children from grief, Ms. Butler says. It is easier to say "the dog ran away" instead of sharing details of a pet's getting hit by a car. This is a mistake, she says.

"We all want to protect children from pain," Ms. Butler says. "If we do what we think is the right thing, then maybe their heart won't be so broken. But eventually the truth will come out, and you will have the double issue of the loss and a breach of trust."

The right terminology

Robyn Zeiger, a Silver Spring counselor who specializes in helping people through the loss of pets, says it also is important to use the right terminology. Euphemisms such as "put to sleep" will scare children, who may think they are going to go to sleep one night and never wake up.

Elderly or sick pets often do die by euthanasia. There is a way to explain the situation honestly, Ms. Butler says. A simple explanation such as, "Sparky is very sick. The doctors say he is not going to get any better. The doctor can give him a drug that only animals can take. It will not hurt him. I know you will be sad. We all will be," will impart information without scaring a school-age child, she says.

Parents should give children a choice when dealing with euthanasia, Ms. Butler says. Some children may want to be in the room to hold their pet's paw. Others may want to say goodbye earlier.

"There is no right age when a child can be involved in this," Ms. Butler says. "The issue is whether they will benefit from being there. If they are, it might be valuable for them to see that their parents are sad, too. Children have incredible imaginations. Most of the time, they will imagine the whole experience will be a lot worse than it really is."

Cathy, a Reston woman who asked that her last name not be used, gave her 7-year-old daughter the choice of what she wanted to do last year when their 12-year-old cat was put down.

"She was so sick," Cathy says. "After the doctor told us our options, I sat my daughter down and said, 'Maddie needs to go be with Grandma. Suffering is not fair for her. The doctor will put a needle in her. It will not hurt her. She will die, but her soul will go [to heaven] with Grandma.'"

The next day, Cathy's daughter wiped away tears as she brushed the cat for 40 minutes. She also said she wanted to stay with her cat until the very end.

"I think she was old enough to be in the room," Cathy says.

Ms. Butler says parents should remember that different ages deal with death in different ways. Preschoolers may understand it is a significant family event but might not grasp the concept that death is final. They also might act out events by displaying signs of stress such as separation anxiety or psychosomatic illness.

Children ages 5 through 8, who often have been brought up seeing cartoon characters with superhuman abilities to cheat death, may feel confused as to why their pet did not outsmart death. For that reason, grief may not manifest itself for several weeks. It is important to go over the details again and reassure children they are not responsible, Ms. Butler says.

By ages 9 to 12, most children know death is irreversible and happens to everyone. Children this age might ask shocking questions about decomposition or autopsies. This is one way that children deal with anxiety, she says.

Adults should answer such questions truthfully and help children deal with their anxiety by participating in a memorial service or letting them say goodbye to the pet, Ms. Butler says.

More than 'just a dog'

"The human and pet bond is unconditional love," Ms. Zeiger says. "I'm a dog person. They don't care if you've had a bad day or you are in a bad mood. They love you anyway."

As a result, Ms. Zeiger is often surprised by the reaction to pet loss in our culture. Too often, the loss is minimized as "It was just a dog," she says.

"You should never say 'It was just a pet,'" Ms. Zeiger says. "If someone's pet dies, you should say 'I am very sorry for your loss,' or anything you would say if they were grieving the loss of a person. Death is more of a taboo in our society than talking about sex or money."

Parents should keep in mind that the death of a pet may bring up other issues of loss, she says. Children also may feel guilt that somehow they let their pet down or somehow the death was their fault.

"Sometimes the death of a pet will bring up other losses, such as the death of a parent or a relationship," Ms. Zeiger says. "Our pets are very often symbolic of the connections that are important in our lives. They are 100 percent dependent on us, which leads to a heightened sense of responsibility, which can lead to guilt."

Children will know it is all right to feel sad if they see that their parents are sad, Ms. Butler says.

"Let the child know that 'even though I feel sad, I can still take care of you,'" she says. "Let the tears flow. Draw pictures of the pet. Read books. Know that grief isn't tidy."

Though it is tempting to replace the pet with another almost immediately, that is not necessarily the best idea, Dr. Olson says.

"It is a very personal decision," she says. "For some, it is the next day; for others, it is years between pets. I tell them, 'You'll know, but wait until you are ready.' I had one long-term patient who developed cancer and had to be put down. The next day, the owners said they couldn't stand it the house was too quiet. So they went out and got a puppy."

Ms. Butler says some people actually might feel worse in trying to make a new pet live up to the old friend.

"If you had a 14-year-old dog and you go out and get a new puppy, it is going to be too much change too soon," she says. "Or you may feel like you need to get another pet in the house so you don't hurt so much, but then feel grief and guilt over the comparison."

June Wood, an Annapolis woman whose dog Munchkin died last year, went out just four months later and adopted a dachshund she named Red Baron. Munchkin was irreplaceable, she says, but it was sadder with no dog in the house.

"When Munchkin died, it was like losing a member of the family," Mrs. Wood says. "My kids are grown and gone. I didn't like coming into the house without a pet there."

Although cloning a pet may be available soon for pet lovers, that still won't replace the pet you lost, says Dr. Margot Kerr, a veterinarian at Friendship Hospital for Animals in Northwest Washington.

"You're not going to be able to replace that pet exactly," she says. "There are so many better ways to get a pet when so many animals need a home."


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