Helping Children Cope with the Death of a Pet

Cecelia Soares, a veterinarian & family & marriage counselor, answers parents most common questions about children and the death of a pet.

Should I tell my child the truth that our pet died or say that it ran away or was stolen?

Be truthful with your child. Children can tell if a parent is lying. Even if they don't question you outright, they can become confused & anxious, and very young children have trouble putting their doubts into words. Telling a child that his or her pet ran away can create anxiety, depression and guilt; young children in particular may believe they did something to make the pet afraid or stop loving them. If the pet was ill, gently explain that the animal was too sick or in too much pain to live any longer. If an accident killed the pet, say that the animal was hurt too badly to survive.

How can I help my children handle their feelings?

A bereaved child desperately needs support from his or her parents, & home may be the only place the child can share his or her feelings. Try to help your children understand that it's normal to have painful feelings after a loss & that it helps them to express them; young children may have an easier time drawing & using other forms of nonverbal expression. Grief resolves more quickly when other people are accepting & understanding, so don't try to talk your children out of their feelings or minimize the loss. It's also helpful for the child to see that you are grieving. You are a role model for handling difficult situations & feelings. And while many parents are reluctant to have their children see them upset, when you say, "I am sad because I miss Boots, too" you show your child how normal it is to grieve.

Should we get another animal right away, or wait awhile?

Many adults say they felt disloyal to the deceased pet when they got another pet too soon, & bringing a new animal into the home right away doesn't give a child a chance to deal with the reality of loss. In fact, replacing a pet prematurely can prolong denial, & children may not bond to the new animal. Generally, it's best to wait until everyone feels ready for a new pet & to include all family members in the decision & choice of animal.

When our cat died recently, we asked the clinic to dispose of the body. Now, the children are upset because there's no grave for them to put flowers on. What can we do?

As a family, create a memorial that honors the pets life. Celebrate the special memories you have of your cat & the qualities it brought into your lives. Involve your children in planning the event. They might create a special garden, make a photo album, or write the story of your cats life. Once the ball is rolling, your children may surprise you with their creativity.

Should my child be present at the euthanasia of our pet?

The answer depends on the age & maturity of the child. As a rule children younger than 7 or 8 shouldn't be present. Watching a beloved animal die is extremely traumatic; adults often report having nightmares & flashbacks for weeks or more. We risk overwhelming a young child by subjecting him or her to such an emotional experience. With elementary school aged children, err on the side of caution. Some 8-year-olds can handle the experience & some 11-year-olds cannot. Adolescents can decide for themselves whether they want to be there, but parents still should offer guidance. Talk with you teenager about his or her reasons for wanting to be present. Like adults, all children need to be thoroughly prepared for what happens or could happen during the procedure; be certain to discuss this subject in detail with your veterinarian. And whatever the situation, never force a child to be present at euthanasia, & don't ask any child to take full responsibility for the euthanasia decision.

Our pet died two years ago when my child was 5. She still occasionally wants to talk about it. Does that mean that her grief is unresolved?

As they mature, children often revisit intense experiences from the past, seeking deeper levels of understanding. Doing so is normal. However, if your child seems obsessive about the pets death or experiences nightmares or other persisting symptoms, it might be a good idea to consult with a child psychologist. Ask your pediatrician for an opinion & possible referral.

Our family dog died a week ago. Almost every day since then, my 4-year-old son has lined up his stuffed animals & "killed" them with a "gun" he made from a stick. After a while, he loses interest & goes on with something else. Otherwise, he seems fine & does not talk about the loss. Should I be concerned?

Young children learn primarily through play. It sounds as if your son is trying to come to terms with his loss by playing it out. You can help him by talking about your own feelings concerning the loss of your pet in simple terms & by planning family activities to memorialize the pet. If he develops other symptoms, or if the behavior persists, you might consult a professional specializing in child psychology.

Reference: Veterinary Economics

©This information sheet was donated by Claws and Paws Veterinary Hospital.

Pet Loss Support Books for Children: (Click titles for links.)