Helping Children Cope with the Death of a Pet

Cecilia Soares, a veterinarian and family and 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 and 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 too badly hurt to survive.

How can I help my children handle their feelings?
A bereaved child desperately needs support from his or her parents, and 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 and that it helps to express them; young children may have an easier time drawing and using other forms of nonverbal expression. Grief resolves more quickly when other people are accepting and understanding so don’t try to talk to 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 and feelings. 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 feel disloyal to the deceased pet when they got another pet too soon, and 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, and children may not bond to the new animal. Generally, it’s best to wait until everyone feels ready for a new pet and to include all family members in the decision and choice of animal.

Should my child be present at the euthanasia of our pet?
The answer depends on the age and 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 and 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 and some 11-year-olds cannot. Adolescents can decide for themselves whether they want to be there, but parents still should offer guidance. Talk with your 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. Regardless of the situation, never force a child to be present at euthanasia, and don’t ask any child to take full responsibility for the euthanasia decision

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