Children and Pet Loss
It is important to remember that children will grieve the death of a pet but they will express their grief in a very different way than adults express grief. Their expression of grief will vary depending on the developmental stage of the children, their prior experiences with death, current circumstances, and the relationship they had with their pets. You can help your children through this difficult time and be supportive by providing an atmosphere in which they can express their feelings, where other family members talk about their own grief, and by providing as much consistency as possible in your children’s daily routine. Following are some specific things you can do and say to help your children cope with the death of a pet.
Child’s Current Level of Understanding About Death
Ask your children questions about what they think happens when a pet dies and base your explanation of death on their level of understanding.
- What do you think will happen to Buddy when he dies?
- What are you most afraid of when you think about Buddy dying?
Children do not conceptualize death the same as adults. Young children do not think of death as final or permanent. Children can be terribly upset about the death of a pet one minute and laughing and carefree the next. This is normal behavior. When children ask questions about death, answer the question they are asking. For example, don’t give lengthy explanations about what death means or what happens to the body if all your child wants to know is “how will Buddy eat when he is in the ground?” Say something like “after we die our bodies no longer work or move so we don’t need to eat anymore,” then let your child determine where to go from there or what other questions s/he would like answered. Another concept that children find difficult to comprehend is that death happens to every living thing. Often they believe it only happens to “other” people and animals.
Honesty – The Best Policy
Be honest with children about the death of a pet. Avoid telling children their pet has run away if it really died. Saying the pet ran away will prevent the death from being talked about and the grief over the loss being shared as a family. It also can cause children to think they cannot trust you to be honest about other things. Working through the grief that accompanies the loss of a pet can prepare children for coping effectively with other losses in their lives. Avoid telling children that “God took” a pet. This can lead to a child believing that God is to be feared or takes those we love away from us. If your belief system includes an afterlife for pets an appropriate alternative would be “Paco died because he was sick but he is with God now.” Resist the temptation to use phrases such as “Missy is going to be put to sleep.” This might cause children to be afraid to go to sleep or see someone they care about sleeping. It also can make children think that their pets will wake up. Remember, young children take information very literally and can not yet form multiple meanings for words or phrases. When explaining to children about illness that has led to a pet’s death, be certain to clarify that not all illness ends in death. Many of the illnesses children get are contagious and therefore they might believe that what your pet had was contagious, so be certain to let your child know that what his/her pet died from will not harm any of your other family members.
Talking With Children About Euthanasia
- Remember to base your explanation on your child’s current level of understanding about death.
- If you tell your child “Snuggles’ veterinarian is going to help Snuggles die so she doesn’t have to suffer anymore,” be sure to clarify that this is something they only do for pets.
- To the degree appropriate for your child’s age and individual development, include them in conversations and decisions about the euthanasia. Be sure to question your children frequently during these conversations to determine their understanding about what you are discussing and to address any questions or fears they might be having.
- If your children want to be present during the time when your pet is being euthanized, be sure to explain, or have your veterinarian explain, what will happen and what can be expected during the procedure.
- Discuss prior to the euthanasia procedure what your family will do during the process such as who will hold the pet, any rituals that will take place, or any items that will be buried or cremated with your pet. Let them know it is OK to hold, touch, or stroke the pet if they desire.
Encourage Children to Express Their Thoughts and Feelings About a Pet’s Death
- Let children know it is OK to be angry, disappointed, or to cry about a pet’s death.
- Encourage conversations about what they miss or think they will miss when their pet dies.
- Let your children know that you are sad about the loss and that you also miss your pet.
- Ask your children if they have any special requests for the pet’s burial or memorial service, and follow through with those requests if possible.
- Ask if there is anything your children would like buried or cremated with their pet.
- Ask your children if they would like to write a poem or say something special to read to their pets.
- Allow children the opportunity to say good-bye to their pets if they desire. If saying good-bye after the pet has died, be sure to let them know what to expect. For example, “Casey won’t move or respond to you when you speak to him.”
What to Expect From Your Child
- Children will frequently retell the events of the death or illness to their friends. You should not be concerned if this happens.
- Many children express their grief through play rather than through verbal communication. You might notice that your child’s play includes games with themes of death or that they imitate what was seen or heard during the period shortly before, during, or after the death. For example, your child might pretend to be a veterinarian telling a family that their pet is sick or has died. Children might bury dolls or have memorial services during their play time.
- Your children might tell you they saw the deceased pet. If this happens, simply ask what the experience was like, or did “Fluffy” have a message. Try to understand the meaning of the experience rather than trying to convince the child it didn’t happen.
- After a death, children frequently ask questions about dying.
- Your child might experience changes in mood, behavior, or emotions.
- Your child might go from crying one minute to laughing the next, or appear unfeeling about the loss.
- Withdrawal from other family members or friends might occur.
- Your child might think that something she or he said or did led to your pet’s death. If a week ago, your child was mad at the cat and thought “I don’t like you,” in a child’s way of thinking, this might have caused the death. Be sure to let your children know that nothing they did, thought, or said led to the death of your pet.
If your children seem excessively upset for a prolonged period of time or if you are concerned about their reactions to the loss of a pet, talk with a professional who is familiar with childhood grief. There are many books available that are written specifically for children on the loss of a pet. Many parents will read a book with their children and then talk about it, and this can be a less intense way for children to discuss what they are feeling. For example, you can ask questions such as “how do you think the little boy in the book felt when he heard his dog died?” Or, “do you think the little girl in the book felt responsible for what happened to her cat?” You can get much information from your child’s answers and children will frequently respond to questions such as this with their own feelings.
When Should We Get Our Child Another Pet?
There is not a “best time” to get another pet. If the pet that died was your child’s personal pet, if possible, let your child decide when to get another pet and what type of pet it will be. Many children will want another pet immediately while others will need some time to adjust to their loss.
This information on pet loss was extracted from multiple sources, including:
- Martha Whitmore Hickman and The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine
- Midwest Cremation Service