6 tips for handling pet loss with children

connect blog children pet loss

More than 65% of American households include a pet, and it’s easy to see why. Interacting with animals can boost your mood, relieve stress and provide companionship. Most people think of pets as family members.

But the death of a pet can be devastating — especially for children. Their grief for a pet can be more intense and last longer than adults’ grief.

The death of a family pet is often the first significant loss a child experiences. Approximately 63% of children with pets lose them before age 7. But knowing how to handle pet loss with your child can help them with the grieving process.

Use these tips with your child in the days and weeks following the death of a beloved pet:

1. Choose the right time and place.

Delivering the news of a pet’s death to your child— while managing your own grief — can be difficult. To make it easier, plan to do it:

  • One-on-one: You want your child to be free to react however they need to, but that may not be the case if there’s an audience.
  • Somewhere your child is comfortable: Familiar surroundings can serve as comfort when your child feels uncomfortable.
  • When your schedule is clear: There is no telling how many questions your child may have or how much comforting they’ll need. Try to limit distractions and choose a time you don’t have to be anywhere else anytime soon.

2. Tailor your conversation to your child’s age and maturity.

Knowing what to expect when your child encounters their first loss can be challenging. But accounting for your child’s age and understanding what they know about death should help.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, a child’s age often guides how they view death:

  • Ages 3 to 5: Children think death may be temporary and reversible.
  • Ages 6 to 8: Children gain a more realistic idea of death and its meaning.
  • Age 9 and older: Children realize death is final and permanent.

Let your child’s questions guide the information you provide. But recognize that you may need to explain the concept of death to a younger child. Older children may be looking for more details about the death itself.

3. Tell the truth about your pet’s death.

Telling your child that their pet ran away or went to live at a farm won’t spare them feelings of grief and loss. And it may compromise your child’s trust when they eventually learn the truth.

Use the words death and dying when talking about what happened. Don’t try to soften the blow by saying your pet was “put to sleep” or “went to heaven.” These phrases can be confusing, especially for a younger child who is trying to understand the concept of death.

Your child may ask difficult questions about why this happened and what happens to your pet after death. Answer those questions honestly and remember sometimes the truth is that you don’t know. It’s okay to say that.

4. Don’t hide your grief from your child.

Losing a pet is often just as hard for the parent as it is for a child. After all, you were likely the primary caregiver from when your pet joined the family to when you said goodbye.

The feelings of grief you are experiencing are real. Letting your child know how you are feeling is okay — even healthy.

Your child is likely experiencing a wide range of emotions which may include sadness, anger and possibly guilt. When you put your feelings on display, your child will see that it’s normal to have these feelings after losing a loved one. They’ll also know it’s okay to share their feelings.

5. Help your child find closure.

Children aren’t always with their pet at the end, so it can be difficult for them to feel a sense of closure. And getting closure after a loss is an essential step in healing.

Ask your child to help you find a special way to remember your pet. It may involve a memorial ceremony, a decorative stone engraved with your pet’s name, or a framed picture of your pet for their bedroom.

It helps your child to know that their pet is not forgotten just because they are gone. Talk about your pet often and with love. Recall fun memories of your pet to celebrate their life with your child.

6. Know when to get help for your child’s mental distress.

Mental distress after the loss of a pet is normal for a child and may include:

  • Artwork and playtime focused on your pet or death
  • Behavioral issues
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Sudden bathroom accidents
  • Trouble sleeping

But you may need medical help managing your child’s distress if the symptoms:

  • Begin to interfere with daily activities and routines
  • Don’t lessen in intensity or duration
  • Last more than two to four weeks

Talk to your child’s primary care provider (PCP) if you are concerned. They can evaluate your child or refer you to a mental health professional specializing in children and adolescents.

Take the Next Step

If your child isn’t coping well after the loss of a pet, reach out to your child’s pediatrician.