Explaining Pet Death to Children

Pet death is one of the hardest things to explain to your child. Young children don't understand what death means, and, often, the death of a pet is a child's first experience with mortality. How you explain pet death to your child, and how you help your child cope with the death of a pet, can have a great impact on your child's ability to cope with death in the future.

How Children Perceive Death

Many children, especially young children, think that their pets will be around forever. They might not even understand that death exists, unless they have experienced the death of a relative, friend or pet before. Pet euthanasia can be particularly hard for children, since they often don't understand why euthanasia is a better option for your pet.

Children under the age of two don't understand death at all. They pick up on the emotions of those around them, so their response to a pet's death will depend on your response to it. 

Children between the ages of two and five do not perceive death as permanent. They understand that the dead pet has "gone away," but they may not understand the dead pet isn't coming back. Children of this age are most likely to miss the pet's company as a playmate, but may not have developed a genuine love for the pet.

Children over the age of five are capable of understanding what death is. That doesn't mean they won't need help coping with it.

How Children Respond to the Death of a Pet

Children of all ages may respond to the death of a pet by regressing in their behavior. They may begin throwing tantrums, sucking their thumbs, or performing other behaviors you thought they had given up. They may withdraw from social contact and their grades may suffer. They may be incredibly curious about what happens to your pet's body after it dies. Answer their questions gently, but honestly.

Explaining the Death of a Pet to Your Child

Tell the truth to your child when you explain pet death. If you lie, or try to hide the uncomfortable truth with euphemisms, your child could become resentful, anxious or confused about death. If your pet needs to be euthanized, tell your child as soon as you find out. Use the words "death" and "dying," and make sure your child understands what they mean. 

When pet death occurs, explain to your child that your pet's body doesn't work anymore, that your pet is gone, and that he won't be coming back. Make yourself available if your child wants to talk about feelings, and share your feelings about the death of your pet with your child. Creating a memorial to your pet together can help in the grieving process. 

When explaining pet death to your child, make sure not to lay blame. Make your child understand that death is a natural part of life. Make sure to tell your child's teachers, and other adults who have regular contact with your child, about the loss. Knowing about your child's loss can help these adults understand and cope with any changes in your child's behavior following the death of a pet.