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 it deserves."

"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 and universal."

*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 of intensity.

*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 about death."


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.

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