February 21, 2020

How to Talk to Children about Pet Loss

By Tracy Hart, LCMHC

For many children, their first experience with mortality is the death of a pet. Families are often unsure about the correct way to handle this situation and may rely on old-fashioned approaches, such as telling a child that their pet went to live with another family.

Following is advice from the Kids Path children’s counselors for how to talk with kids about their pet’s serious illness or death.

Tell the truth

It’s a myth that children can’t handle the truth about their pet dying. Be honest with your child, using language that is age appropriate, and center the conversation primarily on the questions that they ask. Expect young children to ask the same questions again and again over days or weeks, which is typical for their development. Your child may respond initially with sadness, anger, or other strong emotions. Let them know that it’s OK to have big feelings about the illness or death of someone we love.

For a situation in which a pet is terminally ill, talk privately with your veterinarian about how to offer details to your child in factual, but simple words. If a pet must be euthanized, you may need to explain to your child why this is commonly called “being put to sleep” and how death is different from sleeping.

Take time to grieve together

After a pet’s death has occurred, help your child memorialize the pet by making a photo collage or creating a book of special memories. If possible, allow the child to keep a memento of the pet, such as a dog’s collar. Be aware that everyone in the family needs to process the loss at their own pace.

Although it may be tempting to introduce a new pet to the household as soon as possible, the best course of action is to allow a few months before discussing this idea with your child. Make it clear that a new pet is not a replacement for the pet who died, and that it’s OK to always love the first pet while also making room in your hearts for a new addition to the family.

Ask a Kids Path counselor

Kids Path offers phone consultations at no cost. To talk with a licensed counselor about how to help your child cope with death or illness, call 336-544-5437 and ask to speak with a Kids Path counselor.