When a Pet Dies

Children confront death and loss.

Posted Aug 14, 2018

The close emotional connection of children with pets is well documented.

Children say their dogs, cats, even gerbils and fish are “best friends,” nonjudgmental companions, and sources of support. Less recognized are the inevitable losses that accompany bonds with the animals who share our lives.

Except for a few species, like parrots (who may well outlive their human companions), most pets—dogs and cats are the majority of pets in households—have shorter lifespans relative to humans. Thus, even for animals who live to a ripe old age, death of a pet is likely to be an experience that most children have. Large scale demographic data don’t exist, but smaller surveys suggest that 80% of children first encounter death when a pet dies. This is not surprising, given longer human lifespans and, at least, within industrialized societies, the absence of the very old or sick sharing their final days at home together with children. Indeed, modern society tends to separate children (and adults) from the death process, which largely occurs in institutions like hospitals and nursing homes.  Further, many parents try to shield their children from confronting death, fearing it would be too upsetting. Along with sex and money, death is an awkward subject for parents or teachers to tackle. In practice, many children see and learn about death through the media. Books, films and videos vary widely in their accuracy.  In one analysis of death scenes in Disney animated film, key features of death—its permanence and irreversibility—were not acknowledged. More alarmingly, the emotions accompanying death of others were not addressed. This was especially true when the villain of the film died. These trends tend to remove and distort the experience of death.

In addition to pet death, millions of pets are lost–some by accident, when a dog or cat goes astray, others abandoned by roadsides, or relinquished to shelters when families feel they can no longer keep the animals. Thus, pet loss is a frequent experience. Surveys of children show they often worry about their pet’s welfare, particularly when they are away from home, at school or on trips. Kids report stress over these concerns, along with feelings of support and attachment. In fact, the close attachment children often express toward dogs, cats and other pets creates its own anxiety over the potential loss of this bond. Here too, parents often have difficulty knowing how to deal with a child’s worry or the reality of the pet’s death. Young children can become confused by euphemisms such as “putting Fido to sleep,” or suspicious when told stories about how Fido has gone to live on a farm.

Little research attention has focused on how children understand and experience pet death and loss. We know more about how the understanding of death as a general concept develops in children. For example, children younger than four years of age have trouble understanding the key features of death: It is final, universal for all living things, irreversible, and caused by bodily or organic breakdown. In studies of British children, even four year-olds begin to grasp initial components of the death concept, with irreversibility coming first and causality last. As children grow older, their explanations of death become more biologically accurate. At the same time, children are increasingly attuned to cultural and religious explanations of death, and contradictory ideas can coexist, as they do for adults. For example, a teenager may be able to accurately explain the key biological features of death, while at the same time believing that the dead look down from heaven.

The understanding of death is never devoid of emotion. As a permanent loss, death may evoke sadness, confusion, anger and other emotions in children. The timing of emotional expression can be unpredictable. A child might act bored and indifferent at the funeral of a grandmother only to talk about missing her six months later. Adult social expectations surrounding the rituals of death—the funeral, visitation of mourners, etc.—may simply be confusing. Parents and other relatives, who may be grappling with their own grief, are not prepared to attune to the child’s feelings. All these issues are amplified with pet loss, since no socially agreed upon rituals exist for pet owners.

The death or loss of pets has been described as an example of “disenfranchised grief.” This concept refers to sadness and distress that lacks social support and hence, makes the mourner feel he or she cannot be open in expressing grief. “It’s only a pet” summarizes the sentiments underlying such disenfranchised grief. When pet loss has occurred because of family decisions—“we can’t afford to keep Fido any longer”–parents may feel guilty and defensive in the face of a child’s anger or sadness. When a pet is MIA, children, and the whole family, can be left in limbo, hoping for the animal’s return and never resolving the loss.

Helping children deal with pet loss. The first thing one might do is recognize how frequent and difficult this experience is. Adults are usually confused about what to do; society offers few guidelines. Parents might well recognize that there are no “right” and proper emotions. A child who appears bored or indifferent at a death may find ways to grieve later. Bringing new animals into the house quickly as “replacements” may send a message that loved ones in the family are disposable and replaceable. Most difficult perhaps is helping children accept decisions to relinquish a pet. Young children need to know they will never be “given away” no matter how “bad” their behavior is. Should children be present when a pet needs to be “put down” by a veterinarian? There are no right or wrong answers, no appropriate or inappropriate age. It becomes an important "teachable moment" for the whole family, together with the medical staff. 

Pets, by their nature, bring the question of death and loss into the family and give children first lessons in the transience of life.

References

Panagiotaki, G., et. al. (2018). Children's and adults' understanding of death: Cognitive, parental, and experiential influences. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 66, 96-115.