When a Family Pet Dies…



A cat, a rat, a dog – big or small, a fish in a dish: whatever you and your children identify as the family pet, eventually the circle of life is imposed on the family and your friend is lost, your family pet dies.  Sometimes, pets are with us for a long life, companions across many years of our children’s development, loving and being loved.  Others come into the family, touch our hearts, and leave us too quickly feeling, sad, lonely, and heartbroken at their death.  As parents we know that the family pets have a short lifespan, perhaps we have had many pets, and understand that eventually they will die.  Our children, on the other hand, may have little concept of passing time and fail to notice how a pet is aging.  Often they expect that their loved one will be with them forever and are shocked and confused when they die.   We cannot insulate our children from death; doing so only creates fear and dread.  In order for them to be able to manage the sad, lonely, longing feelings that accompany the loss of their furry friend, it must be acceptable for them to talk about missing them, to express how sad they are, and also, they must experience positive coping modeled by their parents.  Here are some ideas of what to expect from children at different developmental stages when a pet dies, and ways for you as a parent to help them cope.

  • 2-5 year-olds lack an understanding of death. They need to be told the pet has died and will not return. It is important that they be reassured that it is not their fault. They will sense and copy your emotions and behavior so be open with your own feelings of grief. Extra reassurance, talking openly about their pet, as well as maintaining usual routines will help them.
  • Children ages 6-9 usually have some understanding of death but may not understand that it is forever. They may begin to be concerned about the death of others too. They are very curious and may ask questions that seem inappropriate, just wanting facts. They may seem more clingy, irritable, or even aggressive. As with young children, it is important that they be reassured that they did not do or say anything that caused the death.
  • Middle School and older teens are able to understand that death is a natural part of life. They might respond inappropriately – laughing when they are sad for example – to appear ‘tough’ to their peers on day and openly emotional the next.  Open, honest dialogue is always best to help them cope.  Also seeking their thoughts about a memorial for the pet helps them feel more competent in the loss.

As with all things, children and you as parents need to allow time to grieve, moving from sad and empty to a place of acceptance and cherishing the happy memories of your lost friend.  When the time is right, plan a memorial or funeral service for your pet, allowing each member of the family to share a memory or contribute in some way.  Remind them that this is an end to the time you will spend together but that the relationship you have lives on in your hearts.


In memory of Dr. Watson, gentle soul and loved play therapy friend. 7/1/2007-8/1/2016.