Children and Pet Loss

Children and Pet Loss


Author: Linda Mar Veterinary Hospital


It is a fact of life that most pets have a much shorter lifespan than do their human guardians. Only parrots and tortoises, under ideal conditions, have lifespans similar to (or longer than) their caretakers.

Losing a pet to illness, injury, or old age – no matter how devastating and sad the loss – is ‘normal.’

Many pets are ‘members of the family.’ They are significant companions, not only to their adult guardians, but also to children in the immediate family. They may also be important to children of ‘extended’ families – relatives, neighbors, and friends.

This pamphlet is a reminder and aid to prepare and involve children when your pet is dying or has died. The death of a pet is oftentimes the first personal experience with death a child has.

It is important to take time to organize a celebration of the pet’s life, as the end of its life nears, or to make preparations to meet the needs of a child after the loss of the pet. Memorializing the life of a beloved pet may help to ease the grief that both you and your child will feel. The fullness of preparations surrounding death can be a final gift the pet offers a child through you – a source of emotional strength they will have for a lifetime.

Things to do:

* Tell your children if your pet’s health is poor. Use simple language to explain the medical problem (arthritis, kidney disease, or simply ‘old age.’) Let them know if the health problem will eventually result in the death of the pet. “Spot is very sick, and though we are trying everything we can to make him comfortable, he will die soon.”

* Organize a family meeting to discuss the health of your pet. Ask members of the family to describe what the pet has enjoyed most in life – going for walks, chasing gophers, sleeping in the sunlight, etc.

Then ask what kind of life the pet would not enjoy – the inability to eat or drink, to get outside on their own, to walk without pain. Let members of the family decide what quality of life is necessary for the pet to continue living happily.

* Make a family decision that all members can support. Draw a line beyond which the pet’s life is no longer considered ‘quality’ – if the pet refuses to eat for 2 days in a row or if he vomits when he tries; if he can’t get outside to go to the bathroom 2 days in a row. By drawing a line ahead of time you commit to recognizing and enjoying each day the pet’s basic necessities are met; and you commit to euthanasia at a time dictated entirely by your love and understanding of the pet, not by emotions and grief.

* Teach your children about your philosophy and religious beliefs. The death of a pet can be a time to examine your own beliefs about death – your child can only benefit from being included in discussions about your faith.

* Don’t tell your child the pet will be ‘put to sleep.’ This can cause your child to have difficulty sleeping themselves for fear they will also leave this world forever.

* Don’t tell your child the pet has ‘gone away.’ Children can interpret this to mean that somehow their love was inadequate to make the pet stay, and they may feel guilty and responsible.

* Be honest. It has been shown that using words and phrases like ‘died’, ‘dead’, and ‘helped to die’ (euthanasia) – however painful and harsh – help children clearly understand and accept the reality of the pet’s death without negatively impacting their sense of self-worth and security.

Ways to celebrate your pet:

Make a photo album of your favorite pet pictures. Include pictures that include each member of your family. Add photos of the animal at all stages of its life – young, at its prime, in old age.

Have your children write letters to their pet – or draw pictures. These can become part of the pet’s photo album or they can be buried or cremated with the remains of the pet. They are a means to let your children voice, into the unknown, the importance of this animal.

Make an impression of your pet’s foot in clay or concrete. (See your local hardware store for supplies, or ask your veterinarian if they have a kit.)

Clip some hair from your pet – put it in a special ‘keepsake.’

Light candles.

Plan a special ceremony at the death of the pet. Invite all the people who knew the pet and who might have had a special attachment to him. Invite them to express feelings, tell stories about the pet that includes their history and experiences with the pet.

Have a ‘burial’ – this can be the remains (or cremains) of the pet – or it can just be the burial of the symbols of the love the pet experienced in the way of poems, pictures or photos.

The loss of a beloved pet is always impossibly difficult. To teach a child the enormity of this loss and the necessary acceptance of it is to teach them love of life; and offers them an honest and healthy means to confront all future love-losses.

The above is general veterinary information. Do not begin any course of treatment without consulting your regular veterinarian. All animals should be examined at least once every 12 months.

About the author:  Linda Mar Veterinary Hospital and its cat-only affiliate, Coastal Cat Clinic, are small animal practices located in Pacifica, California. To find a veterinarian or to learn more about the vet clinic and our staff, visit:

This article is reposted from The Reptile File