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The Loss of a Pet Could Trigger Mental Health Issues in Children

grieving the loss of a pet illo

Catherine Song / verywell 

Key Takeaways

  • New research finds that pet death can trigger poor mental health in children.
  • Symptoms of mental health problems were more prevalent in boys studied than in girls, which might indicate that boys might not be given as much space to grieve their pet's death as girls.
  • The research indicates that caregivers should take kids' grief seriously if they lose a pet, and should monitor children for serious symptoms of poor mental health.

Pets are often a kid's first best friend, and losing them could have severe mental health consequences, according to new research.

A study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that the death of a family pet can trigger symptoms of poor mental health, such as prolonged grief. Parents should take children's grief seriously and support them through the process, which might take longer than they'd expect, researchers suggested.

"Pet death is often the first loss a child is likely to experience, so this really does set the stage for future grieving," says lead author Katherine Crawford, MS, a former clinical research coordinator with the Dunn Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. "It really is an important time to have this discussion about grief and what it means to have a loss."

Why Pet Loss Has a Major Impact On Kids

Researchers collected data using the UK-based Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which studied 6,260 children from birth until age 7 by sending regular questionnaires to their parents.

Researchers found that pet ownership was common: 87% of the children in the sample owned a pet at some point in childhood, and 53% of children lost a pet in the first seven years of their lives.

Previous research has found that children form "deep emotional attachments" to pets, researchers wrote, and that "these attachments can resemble secure human attachment relationships in providing several key resources such as affection, protection, and reassurance."

Katherine Crawford, MS

Pet death is often the first loss a child is likely to experience, so this really does set the stage for future grieving.

— Katherine Crawford, MS

Given how close kids' bonds with their pets can be, it wouldn't be surprising if losing them had a significant mental health impact. But very little prior research has focused on the effect of pet loss on children, the study notes.

The MGH study had three main takeaways, Crawford says: First, children who lose pets have more symptoms of poor mental health. Second, researchers observed this effect more in males. And lastly, "Even when taking into account more traditional adversities, such as the loss of a parent, poverty, maltreatment, instability in the home, we can still see this effect persist," Crawford says.

Though the study didn't delve into why boys were more likely to show symptoms of poor mental health after the loss of a pet, Crawford says she thinks it's related to traditional gendered expectations. "One of the things we've thought about is that girls might be given more space to grieve and really more space to deal with feelings of sadness," she says. "Whereas there can be an attitude toward young boys and males that they need to buck up and get over it."

The study's findings don't mean parents and caregivers shouldn't get pets, researchers note. "Childhood pet ownership and attachment has, in turn, been linked to a number of positive developmental consequences associated with healthy attachment, such as increased empathy, self-esteem, and greater social competence," they wrote.

What Parents Can Do

Dr. Donna Housman, EdD, a psychologist specializing in child development and early childhood education, says that when a pet dies, parents should always be "honest, accurate, respectful, empathic and brief."

"The pet is like a family member, not just to a child, but to the whole family," she says. "In telling a child that their pet has died, it’s important not to sugarcoat or use euphemisms like ‘it went to sleep,' 'it passed away' or was 'old or ready to say goodbye,' as they can confuse a child and cause more worry."

Donna Housman, EdD

Make time to celebrate a pet who has died and let children know their love for it was special.

— Donna Housman, EdD

Children under 5 usually experience death as being reversible, in part due to stories or TV shows, Housman says. So it's important to let those children know that the pet is dead and will not be returning. Children over 5 know that death is irreversible, she says, but they often think it will only happen to others and not to them.

"Empathically telling a child that their pet has died, will not return, and most importantly has nothing to do with them can help make the experience of loss a little bit less distressing and strengthen a parent-to-child connection," she says. Parents should give their kids permission to share their feelings, remind them that they are not to blame for the pet's death, and reassure them that the feelings won't last forever.

"Make time to celebrate a pet who has died and let children know their love for it was special," Housman says. "Most importantly, children need to know that while in time the pain will go away, their memories of their beloved furry friends will always remain."

What This Means For You

Parents, caregivers, and teachers should be prepared to support a child after they lose a pet. That support could impact how they experience loss and grief going forward. Children often display their grief during play, or it might present with physical symptoms such as disturbances in bladder or bowel control, or changes in eating and sleeping.

Housman recommends paying attention to the duration and intensity of the behaviors. If they start to interfere with daily activities and continue for 2 to 4 weeks then it might be time to seek support from a mental health professional.

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