How to explain getting rid of a family pet?

Q: We need to get rid of our family cat due to litter box issues. How do we explain this to our 4 year old daughter who is emotionally attached to the cat? This is her only pet and we do not have plans for a dog anytime soon.

A: If a family has to give a way a cat due to health risks associated with the litter box, the first thing that they want to do is explain to the child - in terms that she can understand – the reason why they need to give the cat away. So a parent may want to tell her something like this: “When the cat poops there is something in the poop that can make us sick, and we don’t want that to happen to any of us, she unfortunately can’t live with us any more. But don’t worry: We love her very much, and we want to make sure she gets a nice home. So we are going to give her to….” A parent would then want to talk with the child about how the child feels, and give her the tools to cope with the feelings. It is often helpful for others in the home to model out loud the coping skills. Perhaps she can hear everyone in the home repeatedly say things like, “I am going to miss our cat, but I know that she is going to a nice home, and that makes me happy. And I still have everyone in my family and all of my friends to play with.” Parents can also help the child look back on other “losses” in her life, and use those to help her cope: “Remember how much you missed playing with Susie when she moved away, but then we started doing other fun things, and now it is not so sad. I think the same thing will happen after the cat leaves”. Parents can also try, at least initially, to help a child find things to help her fill the void, such as spending time with friends and doing other fun activities.

We can’t shield our kids from all disappointment in life, and we actually shouldn’t try to. This experience, while hard at first, can help a child learn some coping skills that can help her to cope with future disappointments and losses. Keep in mind that kids are remarkably resilient, and that generally over time the pain lessens.

By the way, when I was a child, we had a dog that I loved. Unfortunately, my little sister turned out to be allergic to the dog, and my parents told me that my sister and the dog could not live in the house together. I told my parents that I was very sorry to see my sister have to go. They were not amused.

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Answered by Dr. Wayne Fleisig

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