Children and young people can become very attached to pets for a variety of reasons…
“She was the only one who understood when I was upset”
“I could tell him all my troubles, and he never got mad at me”
“He was the only thing I could count on when my parents split up”
When a pet dies, it may be a child or young person’s first experience of the death or loss of something close to them.
They may feel that they have lost their best friend, an important member of their family and they may feel very sad and lonely. Feelings of numbness, disbelief and denial may be common. Sometimes anger or guilt may also be felt for something they did or said that makes them think they contributed to the death. The way in which children, young people and those around them deal with pet loss may lay the foundation for how they cope with other losses later in their life.
Children’s reaction to the loss of a pet
Most children form strong and special bonds with their pets and they are an important member of the family.
The death or loss of a pet may be particularly painful if:
the pet was very special, such as a first pet
there have been other losses in the child’s life, for example the death of a grandparent, loss of friends by changing schools, or the break-up of parents or other family members
The age of the child and their concept of death may also influence how they react to the loss of a pet
Children up to two years of age have little concept of death, but may miss the presence of an animal and will be aware of tensions in the family if others are grieving.
Two to four-year-olds have difficulty grasping that death is permanent and may commonly ask:
“Where is Sammie going? Why isn’t he moving?”
Five to ten-year-olds may ask: “Why don’t the eyes close? What happens to him when he goes in the ground? Does euthanasia hurt? Will my other pets be lonely?”
By the age of nine onwards, most children are aware of the biological finality of death and they may be curious about the aspects surrounding death, such as post-mortem or burial
Adolescence is a time of high emotions and adolescents may be less willing to share feelings or talk about real issues. In fact they may feel closer to their pet than with other members of their family
Useful tips when supporting a child through pet bereavement
Consider other possible losses that the child may be experiencing which may be influencing their grief
Make sure the child doesn’t hear about the pet’s death from someone they don’t know
Always be honest about the circumstances – don’tpretend that the pet has “gone missing” if, in fact, it has died
Include the child when discussing options or making decisions about the pet
Don’t underestimate their feelings. Encourage the child to talk about their pet and express their emotions; writing a story or poem or drawing a picture of their pet can be helpful
Try to understand the importance of the animal and what the child has lost; don’t trivialise or minimize their grief
Use language that the child will understand – straightforward words such as “dead” or “died” are more appropriate than “put to sleep”, which may cause some confusion and anxiety for younger children
Be prepared to talk about how the animal died, but don’t include distressing details
Inform their teacher if the child is very upset, but do so discreetly
Don’t be afraid to share your own feelings of sadness
If children are having other difficulties in their lives, a pet’s death may be the last straw and particular care must be taken to understand their problem; professional help may be needed
Saying goodbye to a pet
Planning ways to say goodbye and to remember a pet can be helpful and comforting for children and young people.
Burial of a pet
Children can choose the spot, do some of the digging or put flowers on the body
They may want some kind of ceremony, to invite friends and family
They could make a gravestone and then paint the pet’s name on it or write a message
They can select bulbs, plants or even trees for planting around the grave
Cremation of a pet
They may want to keep the ashes in a special casket or bury them in a special place
Ashes can be scattered on favourite walks and special places in the garden
Memorials for your pet
Children can be encouraged to remember their animals and celebrate their lives by:
writing poems or letters to the animal
painting pictures and making models
making a scrapbook with photographs or a memory box
Getting another pet
Timing is important. Getting another pet immediately won’t take away the child’s pain.
Talk it through with them. Make sure that any new pet is not seen as a “replacement”.
Blue Cross has a series of pet care and advice leaflets offering guidance for choosing a new pet.
Suggested pet loss reading for children and adults
Missing My Pet By Alex Lambert (aged six).
Goodbye Mousie By Robie.H.Harris. Published by Simon R Schuster.
Goodbye Mog By J. Kerr. Published by Picture Lions.
The Sunshine Cat By Miriam Moss. Published by Orchard Books.