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Children and Pet Loss

Anyone old enough to love, is old enough to grieve. Children form strong attachments to family pets. They talk to them, take care of them, pet them and often look at family pets as siblings or playmates. Children grieve differently from adults and how they grieve depends on their age, emotional development and the strength of the bond they have formed.

For many children, the death of a pet is their first experience with loss. Parents are their models and guides through the grieving process. It is therefore important that parents understand the bereavement processes for themselves in order to help their children with their grief.

Age related Issues

2-3 years of age

At this age children do not have an understanding of death.
It is important at this age that they are reassured that they did not do anything to cause the death of their pet.
It is best to tell children at this age: When a pet dies, it stops moving, doesn’t hear or see and will not wake up again.
Don’t be distressed if you need to repeat this type of statement several times.

3-5 years of age

Children of this age have some concept of death, but they can see death as temporary or possible reversible.
As a sign of grief disturbances, one might see bowel or badder disturbances. Other changes may include differences in playing, eating and sleeping.
Part of the grieving process will be the repetition of questions surrounding the death of their pet.
Watch out for: Children at this age may see death as contagious and fear their own death. They may think the reason the pet died was because they were angry at it.

6-8 years of age

Children have a more realistic view of death although they may not have a complete understanding that pets have different life spans or that euthanasia was the best option.

9-11 years of age

At this age children understand that death is irreversible and happens to all living things.
Watch for changes in social behavior, problems in school, aggression, withdrawal or clinging.

Adolescents

Adolescents seem to react similarly to the way adults react to grief. However there maybe more swings in the spectrum of emotions from unconcerned to childlike.

Young Adults

There can be unique challenges for the young adult losing a family pet whom they may have grown up with. Many have either left home either living on their own, away at college or spending more time with work, friends and school. They may have feelings of guilt for abandoning their pets. If they are away, they may be unable to say goodbye.

Memorials

Memorials can help accept that the pet is now a beloved memory.

Some suggestions for children

Draw a picture of their pet and share what the picture means.
Create a Scrap book.
If the pet is cremated, have a special ceremony. Scatter the ashes, or plant a tree in the backyard.
If the pet is buried, wrap the body in a special shroud or casket.

Some Important Don’ts with Children

Don’t tell children to be “Strong” or criticize their tears.
Don’t tell them how to feel.
Don’t use the phrase “put to sleep”. This can create bedtime and sleeping problems.

The Basics

Children need to know that parents want to understand their feelings and point of view. This communicates the feelings that they are worthwhile and their feelings are respected.
Be honest, simple and supportive. Children don’t need medical or scientific explanations but they will need their questions answered several times.
Allow children to grieve in their own way.

Pet Loss and the Elderly

At this stage of life, the loss of a pet may present special concerns. The human-pet bond between the older individual and pet companion is usually different and in many circumstances more intense and interdependent.

Many older individuals are more alone or possibly house bound. Their pets help to relieve their loneliness, intensifying their bond.
Pets become more intensely important for they play a more significant role in the individuals life. They enable the elderly individual to feel productive, useful and needed as their pet depends on them for basic needs such as food, water, exercise and medical care. They have someone to talk to and feel love for.

If a pet had belonged to a deceased spouse, they represent the last link to that person. If there is incomplete resolution of the passing of this spouse, the loss of this pet may trigger intense unresolved grief. Loss of an older family pet can also trigger feelings of their own mortality and failing health.
The older individuals have had more experience with personal loss. They may have lost a spouse, a friend, other pets, and sadly their children. They have also, in some sense, lost the social interaction of the job or career and the lost some standard of living because of retirement.

As Veterinarians we need to be aware of issues involving pet euthanasia and the elderly.

Seniors may not be as readily able to afford complicated diagnostic or treatment protocols. Euthanasia may be motivated by other concerns such as the worry about who will take care of the pet in case of illness, death or a move to a senior facility which may not allow pets. They are more likely to base their current decisions on outdated information or prior bad experiences involving the death of a pet.

Dr. Saiki, as member of the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians, understands that pet loss in our senior population requires patience and understanding. She understand that there are feelings and circumstances unique to this age group of clients when it comes to putting down a loved family companion.

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