Children and Pet Loss

When a pet dies, it’s common for people to feel as though they’ve lost a member of the family. For children, this is often their first encounter with death. In an attempt to soften the blow, parents sometimes explain the death of a pet in vague ways or skirt the topic altogether. But experts say this just makes things worse by leaving children anxious and mystified.

Explaining a pet’s death to children in a clear, respectful manner can go a long way toward making the journey a little less distressful, and at the same time enhance your connection with your child. Here are some of the most common questions parents ask about what to tell their children when a pet dies.

When a pet dies, what do children think and believe?

Young children aren’t developmentally ready to understand death in the same way adults do. As their understanding deepens over time, the lens through which they view death changes too. From ages 3 to 5, children tend to view death as temporary and reversible. They may believe you can bring a pet back to life by taking it to the doctor for a shot. Magical thinking also may prompt your 4-year-old to believe he somehow caused the pet’s death when he wished for a playful puppy to replace an elderly dog with health problems.

From ages 6 to 8, children usually know death is irreversible but believe it only happens to others. They understand the concept but may not be able to accept that a death is happening to them. From ages 9 to 11, children come to understand that death is inevitable, even for them. However, children in these age ranges may still feel somewhat responsible for the pet’s death, thinking their beloved pet may not have died if only they’d taken her for more dog walks or kept the water bowl full.

Our cat was just run over by a car. What should I tell my children?

When a pet dies, be honest, accurate, and brief. Parents tend to use euphemisms such as “passed away” or “went to sleep” to describe death. For a young child, words like these may end up creating confusion or even extreme fear about going to bed at night.

Don’t feel as though you have to give them a lot of information ,tell them what happened, then see what comes from them, such as their feelings and ideas about how to handle the death. Recognize that if they ask for details, they’re asking for comfort. Spare them any details that would traumatize them or create a horrible picture in their minds. Make it sound as peaceful as you can. 

More helpful advice from Shannon Anderson, Clinical Director of Tender Hearts Child Therapy Center

One of our family cats died not too long ago. My daughter is 3 and really could care less about the cats. They're old and not too interesting to her. Explaining the cat's death to her was pretty easy, but for many parents helping their children deal with the loss of a family pet can be quite stressful. Frequently, adults do not understand the depth of feeling that some children have with their pets. It's important to makes sure that you do not make your child feel guilty or ashamed about grieving for his pet. For many children, the pet is a beloved member of the family and when the pet dies, the child feels a significant loss. Also losing a pet may be your child's first experience with grief--and your first opportunity to teach your child about grief.

Some parents feel that they should protect their children from the grief of the loss of a pet by either not talking about the pet's death or by not being honest about what happened. Pretending that the pet ran away or "went to sleep" can have a negative impact on your child. Your child may end up being more confused or scared. Your child may feel betrayed when he finally learns the truth. It's best to be honest about the pet's death with your child and help your child cope with the loss of a pet in a healthy way.

Tips for Parents:

1. Reassure your child that it's okay to be sad. Validate your child's feelings, even if you don't understand them yourself. Don't make your child feel ashamed for grieving the loss of his pet.

2. If you have your pet euthanized, it's okay to involve your child in the dying process. Explain to your child why the choice is necessary. Allow your child some special time with the family pet and let your child say goodbye to the pet. Swiftly "taking care of business" usually will result in your child becoming angry with you or feeling unnecessarily guilty about euthanizing the pet.

3. It's okay to do some sort of memorial service for your pet. Funerals and other types of memorials are a part of our culture. Having a memorial service for your pet, if your child wants one, is a good way to teach your child about the healing nature of memorial services.

4. Don't rush to buy a replacement pet. You don't want to unknowingly give your child the feeling that all living things are easily replaceable. Give it time. When your child has grieved the loss and is ready for a new pet, certainly get one--but don't rush into it in hopes of alleviating your child's grief.

If you let your child naturally grieve the loss of his pet, you will do a world of good in teaching your child how to manage grief in a healthy manner--something that will stick with your child for the future losses he may face.