Q: I have an old cat that has cancer and I know the end is nearing. I have two small children who love her and I am not sure how to explain it to them. When I was young, my parents told me that my dog went to a retirement farm in Michigan and when I found out much later that he had died and was never coming back, I was furious with my parents. Now as I face the same thing, I dread telling my children. I now know why they lied to me. What should I do?
A: I am sorry to hear about your cat. The death of a beloved pet is very difficult and emotional. It may be the first up-close experience with death for your children. Children often have been exposed to death in various ways from books and TV. It all takes on a new meaning when it is their very own cat that they have loved and adored.
The age and maturity level of the child should also be considered when explaining the facts to them.
I suggest that you get some books on the loss of a pet. Reading a book with your children can help all of you with this difficult time. There are many books on this subject available at most local libraries or bookstores.
There are also local support groups for pet loss. You can visit the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement at www.aplb.org to find a support group meeting near you or a phone number to call for counseling. Many groups do not charge for these services.
You can explain to your children that the kitty is old and sick and ask them what they are thinking or feeling about her. Discuss that you have done everything that you could for the cat but that her body is deteriorating and she can no longer run and play.
It is important to help them understand that they did not cause your cat to have this condition. Children can sometimes think it is their fault for this happening.
Children often like to draw pictures of their pet and look at family photos of the cat. You can help them make a photo album of the kitty and maybe plant some flowers or a tree in her memory.
Just being present for your children and letting them talk and ask questions can be helpful. It is OK to let them see you cry and to know that you are very sad.
Dr. Susan M. Baker received her degree at the University of Florida in 1985 and practices veterinary medicine in Palm Beach County, Florida.