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What to say when a pet dies

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

When a pet dies, it’s common for people to feel as though they have lost a member of the family. For children, this is often their first encounter with death. In an attempt to soften the blow, parents sometimes explain the death of a pet in vague terms or avoid the topic altogether, but experts say this just makes things worse, leaving children anxious and mystified.

The animal charity The Blue Cross says most children form "strong and special bonds" with pets, and it can be especially painful with the death and loss of a first pet.

Explaining a pet’s death to children in a clear, respectful manner can go a long way towards making the event less distressing and, at the same time, will enhance your connection with your child.

Here are some of the questions parents ask about what to tell their children when a pet dies:

When a pet dies, what do children think and believe?

Young children aren’t ready to understand death in the way adults do. As their understanding deepens over time, the lens through which they view death changes.

From the age of three-to-five, children tend to view death as temporary and reversible. They may believe you can bring a pet back to life by taking it to the doctor for an injection. Your four-year-old may even believe he or she somehow caused the pet’s death by wishing for a playful puppy to replace an elderly dog with bad breath and health problems.

From the age of six-to-eight, children usually know death is irreversible but believe it happens only to others. They understand the concept but may not be able to accept that a death is happening to them.

From the age of nine-to-11, children come to understand that death is inevitable, even for them. However, children in this age range may still feel somewhat responsible for the death, thinking their beloved pet may have lived if only they’d taken the dog, say, for more walks or kept the water bowl full.

Our cat was just run over by a car. What should I tell my children?

Blue Cross offers a pet bereavement helpline, and offers these tips for supporting a child after the death of a pet:

  • Think of other possible losses that the child may be experiencing which may be influencing their grief.
  • Make sure the child doesn’t hear about the death from someone they don’t know.
  • Be honest about the death, don’t pretend that the pet has gone missing.
  • Include the child when discussing options and decisions about the pet.
  • Encourage the child to talk about their pet and express their emotions. Doing a drawing, writing a story may help.
  • Try to understand the importance of the animal and the loss to a child.
  • Don’t trivialise or minimise their grief.
  • Use language that the child will understand such as “dead” or “died” rather than “put to sleep”, which could confuse younger children.
  • Be prepared to talk about how the animal died, but leave out any distressing details.
  • Tell the child's teacher discreetly in case the child becomes upset at school.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your own feelings of sadness.
  • The child may need professional help, especially if the child has been facing other problems.
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