Telling a child the pet has died is not an easy thing, but is an important opportunity for you to teach them a valuable lesson, that of life and death. You may not want to admit it, but death happens to people too, so if a child is first exposed correctly when a pet dies, it will help them understand death of a friend or family member.
Do not tell them it ran away. This is a lie, which is what we tell our children is wrong. It is a dangerous lie too, because you should spend a good amout of time looking for a lost pet, and always leaves a lingering doubt in their mind. This lie has no closure.
Do not tell them “It went to Heaven, or was Put to Sleep.” Young children have no concept of Heaven except what is told to them by their parents, make sure you say it died AND went to Heaven, if you want Heaven mentioned. It is important to clarify that death is not a place you can go to easily, like another country or room in the house. Equally saying a pet was “Put to Sleep” implies nothing really happened, no big deal. They will not understand why you are crying, if you do, and might even be scared of going to sleep, or wondering why it is not waking up.
Do not replace the pet with an identical looking one. For starters the behavior will be different, and this is not fair to the new pet who may be expected to act a certain way. This also negates you having the valuable time to teach the child the lessons that death offers.
If the pet was hit by a car, say so. This also teaches children why it is important to keep pets on a leash or safely in the yard or house.
If the pet was sick and you took it to the vet for Euthanasia, tell the child this was done because the pet was in pain which would not get better and you took it to the veterinarian to be given an injection to end its life, so it would not be in such pain any longer.
Talk to the child in terms that are age appropriate, answer all the questions honestly. If you do not know the answer, it is okay to say “I do not know”.
If possible bury the pet, or if it was cremated, scatter the ashes, this allows closure, which is very important. One thing to consider is that the child may wish to see the deceased animal, this is okay depending on its’ physical condition (especially if hit by a car, you may wish to cover the pets face if you have to), it allows the child to say “Good Bye” which is very important.
Sometimes children will get over a death surprisingly fast and may want to get a new pet right away. Never rush this, but if you feel you are ready, then go ahead. Make sure to not select one similar in appearance to the deceased pet, this is unfair to that animal.
Remeber being open and honest is the right thing to do, and is exactly the way we want our kids to behave with us in return.