Children and Pet Loss
In the Perspectives July/August, 1994
Laurel Lagoni, M.S. and Carolyn Butler, M.S.
"The experience of childhood pet loss rarely gets the attention
"Many children are actively involved in their pets' daily care.
It is only fair to give them the option of also being involved in the
circumstances surrounding their pets' death."
"By protecting children from experiences with death, adults deny them
the opportunity to learn how to master feelings of loss. When
children are shielded from adults' expressions of grief, they are denied
the role models necessary for them to learn normal, healthy coping behaviors."
"Children grieve just as deeply as adults, but express their grief
differently depending on their level of cognitive development.
Infants to 2 years:
Babies can feel when stress escalates, but they are
not aware of the cause of the tension. Infants may cry, withdraw
and/or regress. Babies are reassured best by hugs, cuddling and
special time devoted to them. Keeping routines as normal as possible
is also helpful.
2 to 4 years old:
*"Toddlers and preschoolers understand pet loss is
a significant family event, but do not understand that death is permanent
*They miss their furry playmate and ask a lot of questions.
They are willing to talk about death and are more relaxed and curious
about it than any other age. They may or may not cry about their
loss initially, and their symptoms of grief may come and go with degrees
*Young children explore death through play. They
may draw pictures, bury stuffed animals in their sandbox or plan funerals
for their dolls. These are healthy responses and should be encouraged.
*If members of this age group are not encouraged to
express their fear and sadness about death through play or open displays
of emotion, they may vent their emotions by acting out.
*"Toddlers may also develop separation anxiety or psychosomatic
complaints (stomach aches and sore throats). Changes in children's
personality, daily habits, social lives and behaviors can be indications
that more positive vehicles of expression of grief are needed."
5 to 8 years old:
*Early school-aged children are less willing to talk
about death. They often think of death as the Grim Reaper or Dark
Angel. "They believe it is possible to hide from or avoid death.
Because of this belief, these children may feel angry at people who
die. They do not understand why their loved ones did not just
run away or hide when death came to get them."
*It is common for children to feel that they are responsible
for the death.
*Children may discuss death in morbid details with
friends and make up elaborate stories. For a number of reasons,
grief may be delayed and may not be manifested for weeks and even months
after the loss. At this time, it may be necessary to go over the
circumstances surrounding a pet's death with them and reassure them
that they are not responsible for what happened.
"Around age 8 death is understood to be permanent and
universal. When a pet dies, it is important that these children
have the opportunity to talk about their animals and to ask questions
9 to 12 years old:
*"They are capable of sustaining intense periods of
grief and can become preoccupied with a loss, particularly if they have
ever had feelings of abandonment or rejection before."
*"A pet's death can trigger memories of previous losses.
Grief for a pet may be connected to earlier, equally disturbing deaths."
*"Children may ask somewhat shocking questions about
dismemberment during autopsies or deterioration of bodies after burial."
This is one of the ways they deal with anxiety. Parents should
give honest answers and find ways to help them resolve their feelings.
Some suggestions include viewing a pet's body, helping
to dig a grave and participating in a goodbye or memorial ceremony.
"As with younger children, opportunities for heart-to-heart talks or
questions and answers are usually appreciated."
13 to 17 years old:
*Adolescents can be self-conscious and hyperemotional.
One day they want to be treated like an adult and the next they want
to be reassured like a young child.
*One day a teen is devastated by a pet's death and
the next day it is no big deal.
*One of the developmental tasks of adolescents is to
establish independence and adults should not insist that they grieve
in a certain way or within a certain timeframe.
*"Teens may hide their feelings and/or act them out
in angry, antisocial ways. Peer approval and acceptance are important
to them; if friends are supportive of their grief, it is much easier
for them to deal with the death of a pet."
18 to 21 years old:
*The death of a childhood pet often represents a rite
of passage, the loss of a link to a simpler, more innocent time.
*Adults can verbally acknowledge the symbolic connections
that exist between the pet and the young adult's childhood.
"Young adults may feel guilty for "abandoning" their
pets by leaving home to attend college, go to work or get married.
*"Guilt is not easily swept away, but young adults benefit
from and appreciate words of comfort from sincere adults."
Facilitating Companion Animal Death:
*"With adequate preparation, children who are old enough
to think and speak for themselves are able to choose whether or not
to be present at euthanasia. They can also decide how to say goodbye
to their pets, how to honor their pets' memories and whether or not
to view their pets' bodies."
*"The key to exposing children to any of these potentially
frightening experience is preparation. For example: if children
want to be present for a euthanasia, they need to be clearly told what
will happen while they are in the room, what they will see, how their
pet will look, feel and behave and what is appropriate behavior after
the pet dies (e.g., petting, hugging, crying or just spending time with
the body). Overall, children need to be given permission to think,
feel and behave in ways that are meaningful for them."
*During pet loss, it is important for the adult to
avoid using euphemisms like "put to sleep" and "went away," since children
are "put to sleep" every night.
*Words and phrases like "died," "dead," "helped to
die" may seem harsh, but they help children clearly understand and accept
the reality of the pet's death.