Children react differently to the passing of a pet according to their developmental stage. Here's all you need to know to support your kids at every stage of life
Dealing with the loss of a pet is hard, whether for you, your child, or your surviving pets. Although losing a pet cat or dog is emotionally difficult for anyone, parents and caretakers have the additional challenge of helping their children grieve the loss of a furry friend. Families that need to make the tough decision of putting a pet down might even start to wonder: should children be present for pet euthanasia? How do we explain euthanizing a pet to a child?
The answer depends on the developmental stage of your children. From baby years through adolescence, kids undergo changes that make them process and cope with loss differently. Below we listed some practical approaches to help you and your family at this difficult time.
What to tell a toddler when a pet dies? Although infants and toddlers below the age of 2 are not developmentally ready to comprehend the loss of their beloved companion, they might sense the sadness or stress surrounding them and respond to it through behavioral changes like increased crying. To calm them down, parents need to increase their sense of security through love and affection and ensure their physical needs are met.
For young children between the ages of 2 to 6, the concept of death may seem abstract, and they might not be able to comprehend its permanent consequences fully. Due to their curious nature, you might be bombarded with questions such as “When will my pet come back?” or “Will my pet come to life again?” The best way to respond to these situations will be to answer all their questions simply but truthfully. Try talking to them directly to address any remaining questions or concerns they might have. Use simple words and phrases and avoid using euphemisms, which can lead to increased stress. These strategies can assist them in processing their grief.
At this young age, it wouldn’t be surprising if your child starts to exhibit behavioral changes in response to the loss of their pet, such as regression. He or she might throw a temper tantrum or have difficulty sleeping. In instances like these, it is important to keep a regular daily routine so that your child will be reassured with a sense of security.
Another strategy to help your children cope with emotional distress is reading books about saying goodbyes to their beloved companions. Books like “Saying Goodbye to Lulu” and “My Pet Died: A Coloring Book for Grieving Children” can help your children cope with their thoughts and feelings about this inevitable loss.
It is best to be direct with children around the ages of 7 to 10. Allow them to have their own space and time while they experience different emotions regarding their deceased pet. It is important to provide them with any form of comfort that fits their needs as their emotions come and go.
Do not try to force any feelings on them. Instead, act as a role model and be open to talking and expressing your own grief to reassure them that it is okay to be sad and grieve. Let them understand that they are not alone, as these emotions are part of the healthy emotional responses experienced by everyone.
It can also be helpful to find unique ways to help them remember the time they spent with the pet. Whether by setting up a burial ceremony, sharing fun moments, creating a clay paw, or simply hanging up the pictures of your pet on one of the walls, it is helpful to bring up the positive memories your child had with the pet to help them recover emotionally from this loss.
Related content: Dealing with the grief of pet loss
Usually, teens are the ones that have years of memories with their pet and thus have developed a deeper emotional bond with them. However, teens tend to be more reserved when it comes to emotional responses toward their deceased pet. They might not want to share their emotions directly through talking, as they understand the permanent meaning of death.
It is customary for teens to exhibit other emotions, such as anger, to cover their true feelings of fear and sadness. To support them, give them space and time to process the loss of their pet. They might prefer to express their true feelings through self-reflection activities like journaling. When they feel ready to talk, be open about your own grief. Try to be authentic about your emotions and let your teens know that you also miss your pet.
Don’t be afraid to talk about fun memories. Although your teens might feel uneasy about opening up about their feelings, they will be good listeners. You would be surprised how sharing your own feelings might indirectly support your teens through this difficult time.
Often, college students will not be able to accompany their pets during the last days of their life. On the surface, this might seem like a good way to avoid the emotional distress of experiencing firsthand the death of their pet. However, it is for this exact reason that college students might feel very guilty. After all, they are not able to accompany their beloved cat or dog through its last days of life.
The toll of losing a pet might carry a deeper meaning for college students. To them, it could mean saying goodbye to a part of their childhood or finally taking on the responsibilities and emotional capabilities of an adult. Thus, the best way to help them cope with this difficult news is to check in with them frequently and remind them that their pet had a happy life and enjoyed every single moment they spent together. Regularly checking in will provide them with a sense of security that is crucial for them to feel supported.
Our pets are not just animals to us. They are our best friends, our furry children, a source of love and joy. Their loss impacts the whole family and each person might grieve differently. If you or your children are struggling with the loss of a pet and need extra support at this difficult time, here are some groups and phone lines you can reach out to:
“How to Help Children Cope with a Pet's Death.” Animal Hospital of Springfield, 8 Sept. 2020.
“Children and Pet Loss.” Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Sokol, Rachel, et al. “An Age-by-Age Guide to Explaining the Death of a Pet to Children.” FamilyEducation, 23 July 2019.
“When a Pet Dies (for Parents)" - Nemours Kidshealth. Edited by Steven Dowshen, KidsHealth, The Nemours Foundation, June 2018.
Wood, Trina. “Helping Kids Cope with Pet Loss.” Synergy Magazine / School of Veterinary Medicine Magazine, 15 Nov. 2021.
Here are our frequently asked questions to help you feel fully informed and at ease.