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Pet Loss Support
When you lose a pet you are losing a part of your family. Whether your pet passes away, is lost or stolen, or must be placed in a new home, the end of a relationship with a special pet can be one of the most difficult times of your life. If you need emotional help with this difficult time, please visit the UC Davis website for links to reputable Pet Support Loss Hotlines and other resources: UC Davis Pet Loss Support
Be truthful with your child. Children can tell if a parent is lying. Even if they don't question you outright, they can become confused and anxious, and very young children have trouble putting their doubts into words. Telling a child that his or her pet ran away can create anxiety, depression, and guilt. Young children, in particular, may believe they did something to make the pet afraid or stop loving them. If the pet was ill, gently explain that the animal was too sick or in too much pain to live any longer. If an accident killed the pet, say that the animal was too badly hurt to survive.
How can I help my children handle their feelings? Should I tell my child the truth, that our pet died, or say that it ran away or was stolen?
A bereaved child desperately needs support from his or her parents, and home may be the only place the child can share his or her feelings. Try to help your children understand that it's normal to have painful feelings after a loss and that it helps to express them; young children may have an easier time drawing and using other forms of non-verbal expression. Grief resolves more quickly when other people are accepting and understanding, so don't try to talk your children out of their feelings or minimize the loss.
It's also helpful for the child to see that you are grieving. You are a role model for handling difficult situations and feelings. And while many parents are reluctant to have their children see them upset, when you say, "I am sad because I miss Boots, too," you show your child how normal it is to grieve.
Should we get another animal right away or wait awhile?
Many adults say they felt disloyal to the deceased pet when they got another pet too soon, and bringing a new animal into the home right away doesn't give a child a chance to deal with the reality of loss. In fact, replacing a pet prematurely can prolong denial, and children may not bond to the new animal. Generally, it's best to wait until everyone feels ready for a new pet and to include all family members in the decision and choice of animal.
When our cat died recently, we asked the clinic to dispose of the body. Now the children are upset because there's no grave for them to put flowers on. What can we do?
As a family, create a memorial that honors the pet's life. Celebrate the special memories you have of your cat and the qualities it brought into your lives. Involve your children in planning the event. They might create a special garden, make a photo album, or write the story of your cat's life. Once the ball is rolling, your children may surprise you with their creativity.
Should my child be present at the euthanasia of our pet?
The answer depends on the age and maturity of the child. As a rule, children younger then 7 or 8 shouldn't be present. Watching a beloved animal die is extremely traumatic; adults often report having nightmares and flashbacks for weeks or more. We risk overwhelming a young child by subjecting him or her to such an emotional experience.
With elementary-school-aged children, err on the side of caution. Some 8 year olds can handle the experience and some 11 year olds cannot. Adolescents can decide for themselves whether they want to be there, but parents still should offer guidance. Talk with your teenager about his or her reasons for wanting to be present.
Like adults, all children need to be thoroughly prepared for what happens, or could happen, during the procedure. Be certain to discuss this subject in detail with your veterinarian. And, whatever the situation, never force a child to be present at euthanasia, and don't ask any child to take full responsibility for the euthanasia decision.
Our pet died two years ago when my child was 5. She still occasionally wants to talk about it. Does that mean her grief is unresolved?
As they mature, children often revisit intense experiences from the past, seeking deeper levels of understanding. Doing so is normal. However, if your child seems obsessive about the pet's death or experiences nightmares or other persisting symptoms, it might be a good idea to consult with a child psychologist. Ask your pediatrician for an opinion and possible referral.
Our family dog died a week ago. Almost every day since then, my 4 year old son has lined up his stuffed animals and "killed" them with a "gun" he made from a stick. After awhile, he loses interest and goes on to something else. Otherwise, he seems fine and does not talk abut the loss. Should I be concerned?
Young children learn primarily through play. It sounds as if your son is trying to come to terms with his loss by playing it out. You can help him by talking about your own feelings concerning the loss of your pet in simple terms and by planning family activities to memorialize the pet. If he develops other symptoms, or if the behavior persists, you might consult a professional specializing in child psychology
Source: Cecelia Soares, Veterinarian, family & marriage counselor