Explaining Pet Loss to Your Child

Children begin to understand the concept of death from a young age, even though they may be unaware of it at a conscious level. It is natural to want to protect our children from painful experiences. Most adults, however, are surprised to find how well most children adjust to the death of a pet if they are prepared with honest, simple explanations.

Adults should avoid using terms like “put to sleep” when discussing the euthanasia of a family pet. A child could misinterpret this common phrase, indicating the adult’s denial of death, and develop a terror of bedtime. When a pet dies, it may be difficult for a child to resolve the grief experienced if the child is not told the truth. Suggesting to a child that “God had taken” The pet might create a conflict in the child, who could become angry at the higher power for cruelty toward a pet and the child.

Children can understand, each in their way, that life must end for all living things. Support their grief by acknowledging their pain. The death of a pet can be an opportunity for a child to learn that adult caretakers can be relied upon to extend comfort and reassurance. It is a significant opportunity to encourage a child to express their feelings.

Children can usually deal with honesty better than deception, however well-meaning. Often the death of a pet is a child’s first experience with loss and grief. Children need to know that it is normal to feel sad and cry. They should also be encouraged to share their feelings so that worries and anxieties are brought out in the open. Many adults, as well as children, take comfort in having a simple burial ceremony at which they say their final goodbyes. Generally, it is not advised to get another pet immediately. Replacing a pet too quickly can give children the idea that losing something you love is unimportant and that loyalty can be easily transferred. When children are given time to grieve a loss, they learn that although losing something they love is painful, sorrow passes and joy again becomes a part of their lives. When helping children cope with pet loss, knowing how they perceive death at different ages is useful.

Two and Three-Year-Olds

Children two or three typically have no understanding of death. They often consider it a form of sleep. They should be told that their pet has died and will not return. Common reactions to this include temporary loss of speech and generalized distress. The child should be reassured that the pet’s failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have done or said. Typically, a child in this age range will be ready to accept a new pet sooner.

Four, Five and Six-Year-Olds

Children in this age range have some understanding of death but in a way that relates to continued existence. The pet may be considered to be living underground while continuing to eat, breathe and play. Alternatively, it may be regarded as asleep. A return to life may be expected if the child views death as temporary. These children often feel their anger for the pet may be responsible for its death. This view should be refuted because they may also translate this belief to the death of family members in the past. Some children also see death as contagious and begin to fear that their death (or that of others) is imminent. They should be reassured that their death is not likely.

Grief manifesting often involves bladder and bowel control and eating and sleeping disturbances. This is best managed by parent-child discussions that allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Several brief discussions are generally more productive than one or two prolonged sessions.

Seven, Eight and Nine Year Olds

The irreversibility of death becomes real to these children. They usually do not personalize death, thinking it cannot happen to them. However, some children may develop concerns about the death of their parents. They may become very curious about death and its implications. Parents should be ready to respond honestly to questions that may arise. Several manifestations of grief may occur in these children, including the development of school problems, learning problems, antisocial behaviour, hypochondriacal concerns or aggression. Additionally, withdrawal, over-attentiveness or clinging behaviour may be seen. Based on grief reactions to the loss of siblings or parents, it is likely that the symptoms may not occur immediately but several weeks or months later.


Although this age group also reacts similarly to adults, many adolescents may exhibit various forms of denial. This usually takes the form of a lack of emotional display. Consequently, these young people may be experiencing grief without any outwards manifestations.

* Reprinted from the American Animal Hospital Association and the AVMA