My Pet World: Be honest with kids about pet's death

Question: How do I tell my kids (ages 7 and 5) that our dog, Bella, is dying? I'm told she has a week to three weeks to live. — S.C., Charleston, S.C.

Answer: "The first and most important rule is to be honest," says Stephanie LaFarge, senior director of counseling at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

So, don't ignore Bella's illness and take her to the vet's office to be euthanized one day while the kids are in school - followed by a vague explanation that "Bella went to a farm."

"This sort of deception sets up the kids for years of psychotherapy as adults," says LaFarge. "Tell the kids that Bella is sick or that she has a disease — and give it a name — if there is a name for what's wrong with her. Say, 'Soon, Bella will need our help to go to heaven. And we'll have to take her to the veterinary office so she will never hurt again.' Of course, these aren't going to be your exact words, but the idea is to be honest."

When it comes time to euthanize, LaFarge says, ideally take the children into the room so they can see how peaceful the process is.

"Some veterinarians are very good about this; others may not be," she says. "One reason you want to let the kids watch is that their imaginations may portray a picture far more terrifying than what really happens."

Of course, the 5-year-old may not grasp the notion of death and might ask for another dog an hour later. "That doesn't mean the 5-year-old didn't care about Bella. Other young children may be very distressed, and (you should) understand that is also normal," says LaFarge.

LaFarge adds that it helps to offer all an outlet for grief (for adults, as well as children) over the death of a beloved pet. The outlet for your kids might be coloring, burying some valued items belonging to Bella during a ceremony in which she is honored, reviewing a photo album, writing stories and/or speaking to friends/family members about feelings. There are many excellent books for kids about pet loss (available everywhere from to your local library).

Don't be afraid to let your kids see that Mom and Dad are sad, too. Indeed, Bella has been with you longer than your children — and of course, you will mourn her passing. I'm sorry for your impending loss.

Q: Our 18-year-old cat, Monty, has always devoured his food but over the last four months he's become less and less interested in food. I know your answer will be, "see your veterinarian." But Monty is 18 and he's going to die anyway. I care very much about him, but money is tight and we have a family. Any advice? — V.C., Cyberspace

A: So, I should advise my 81-year-old neighbor, who hasn't been feeling well, not to see her doctor because she's eventually going to die? I sure hope not!

While I do understand what you're saying, it's very possible that a veterinarian could give your feline friend a chance to extend his life and to feel better. Monty deserves that chance.

Sometimes adding some low-salt tidbits of lunch meat or some baby food (without onion) can stimulate appetite. Also, be sure Monty has lots of options to find water. But, even if you succeed, and his appetite returns, understanding the underlying cause of the problem — which could range from dental issues to kidney disease — is the only way to go.

Q: Like many dog owners trying to watch the cost of health care for my dog, I'm hoping you can tell me why I have to pay to have my 5-year-old poodle tested for heartworm disease every six months. Without the test, my vet won't give me any product. This test is $75. I'm sure I'm not the only owner wondering about this test. What do you think? — D.C., Cyberspace

A: True, you're not the only dog owner wondering about the need for a heartworm test. However, few owners ask about heartworm testing every six months because it's far more typical to test annually. Dr. Sheldon Rubin, past president of the American Heartworm Society ought to know.

He says the American Heartworm Society's recommendation is for annual testing for most dogs. One exception may be if heartworm is occurring where you live, even though dogs are apparently on the preventatives. While this problem is very rare, it is occurring in small geographic pockets. Another exception to the year rule is if you recently adopted your dog.

"Otherwise, I can't imagine why a test is important every six months; it's overkill," Rubin says.

Rubin, based in Chicago, IL, adds, that you should test annually; this isn't only a recommendation of the American Heartworm Society to insure safety when using a heartworm preventative, but also the current recommendation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Q: After my brother passed away, I inherited his 10-year-old Golden Retriever. I want to do the best I can for Bo. I'm concerned because he opens his mouth wide, making noises like he's going to throw up, or that he's gagging and wants to catch his breath. My vet says I have nothing to worry about, but what do think? — D.N., Rawdon, Quebec, Canada

A: Veterinary pulmonologist Dr. Philip Padrid, of Corales, N.M., says this problem may be a periodic accumulation of mucus, a problem common to older people and older dogs. People with this problem may frequently clear their throats, and that's essentially what Bo is doing.

It's also possible Bo may have the beginnings of laryngeal disease.

"As it progresses, the dog's symptoms (as you describe here) will gradually worsen, and could also soon include a reluctance to exercise," Padrid says.

The good news is, once laryngeal disease is properly diagnosed (with an outpatient procedure), an experienced surgeon can surgically correct the problem, though the dog may then become more prone to aspiration pneumonia (inhaling fluid or food into the bronchi or lungs).

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