I don't know about the rest of you, but I actually pause when someone asks me about my profession. Each and every time I'll wage a cerebral war with myself on the pros/cons of telling this complete stranger about what I do, because 75% of the time the next words will be, "So I have this dog...".

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sometimes, the truth really is best.

Seven or eight years back I used to work at a multi-doctor practice a few thousand miles East of where we live now. One of my colleagues (Dr. H) had a client who owned a sweet yellow Labrador Retriever that had been coming to the hospital since he was a pup. Great dog, I remember seeing him a couple of times in the lobby. Eventually the dog developed some chronic debilitating disease (one that I can't remember now), and finally one Saturday he unfortunately had to be euthanized. This particular client used to bring their two young children, both under the age of six, with them during their appointments, however during this particular appointment they weren't present. Dr. H had told me later that after the euthanasia, the parents wanted his opinion on what to tell the kids. They were fairly young, afterall, and they loved that dog fiercely.

Well, Dr. H (having five children of his own) felt strongly that telling them the truth was the best thing to do. Hey, death is a horrible fact of life that kids end up learning at some point, so he thought the parents should take control of when and how the children learn it. Upon leaving the exam room, they agreed and planned to tell the kids later that night what had happened.

Two weeks later when they returned to pick up the ashes, our office manager asked how the conversation went.

Apparently, telling the kids that the dog had died wasn't what they originally were worried about. Death, surprisingly was easy to explain, it was how the dog died that was the difficult part. I hadn't thought about that. Sure, he had a severely debilitating disease with no hope of a cure. But how exactly do you explain to a child at that age that, not only did the family dog die, but YOU took him to the hospital to be killed.

I guess they felt it was easier to tell the kids that when they parked outside our hospital for a routine visit, he jumped out of the car, ran into the street and was hit by a car.

Wow. I'm not sure why, but I think about that story almost every time I'm faced with a euthanasia. A lot of my clients have children, and I often wonder what they're being told. Thankfully I haven't been faced with that situation yet, so I haven't had to have that difficult conversation with a child. I guarantee though that if my wife and I have to unfortunately euthanize one of our pets, we'll somehow have our kid(s) prepared from the start. Hey, I don't know how we'll prepare them, but we'll do it. I just simply can't fathom how a lie like that is supposed to somehow be more comforting than the truth.


  1. Hmm. I'm not sure that would be the best way to handle that, but every family is different I guess.

  2. (Just found your blog tonight and reading through old posts...)

    Im a tech at an emergency practice, a multi-pet owner and a mom of 3 young kids. We had lost pets when the kids were very young but, when they were about 3 or 4, I actually had to sit them down and have "the talk" because we knew we'd be putting one of our dogs down because she had cancer. Luckily (or unfortunately) they grasped the concept of death, to whatever extend a 4 year old can, because 2 close friends of the family had passed away. We were very honest about where they were and what had happened (we sort of likened it to the batteries in their toys dying except, with people, you can't change the batteries).

    With the dog being euthanized, I had to figure out how to explain that we were going to take her to the vet, the vet was going to give her medicine and she would die. Turns out, the best way to explain it was to basically say just that. They knew she was very old and very sick and that she would soon be going to "heaven". So, with the appointment made, I sat the kids down and reiterated how sick she was and that it made her feel very bad. I told them that because we loved her, and because we didn't want her to hurt anymore, we were going to take her to the doctor and he was going to give her some medicine to help her get to heaven. I explained that if we could fix her, we would, or if we could even make her tummy not hurt, we'd do that. But, we couldn't do either of those things for her and the only thing we could do, to keep her from hurting, was to let her go to heaven.

    Kids deserve more credit than we give them, in most cases. Both kids had questions which I answered as honestly as I could. They were sad but didn't have any issue with the fact that the vet was going to give the dog something to help it go to heaven. Now, the nest time we had a vet that needed to go to the vet (for something routine) we did have to reassure the kids that the dog would be coming back home but that was really the only concern they had about the vet and pets going there and what happened whiel they were there.

    (wow, that got way longer than I had planned, very quickly)

  3. Jumpin' Jiminy, I should have read that before hitting send, instead of after. Please attribute all typos and nonsensical sentences to the late hour and the fact that I've found like 4 new vet blogs tonight that I never knew about before and have been reading blogs instead of sleeping, which is what I should be doing.

  4. haha, no worries. Thanks for the story. Now that our first child was recently born (one of the reasons for the lack in new posts...), we'll eventually be faced with the difficulty of explaining death. Sucks, but it's a sad, but real, fact of life.

  5. when I was young, I knew our old dog Barry was sick. My folks took him to the vet and then came home without him. Took me years to forgive them - I just wanted to say goodbye to him. I'd say I was about 10.

    I think parents need to be honest :P I would be.