Helping Children Deal With the Loss of a Pet

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Dealing with the loss of a pet is never easy. When dealing with the sudden loss due to an emergency illness or injury, or euthanasia, the decisions that must be made and the ultimate loss of the family pet bring up a lot of conflicting and difficult emotions.

When children are involved, special considerations must be made to help them understand what is going on and how to deal with the loss of a pet and grief that follows.

Preparing for Euthanasia

Euthanasia is “death by injection” for a terminally ill, suffering animal. Many people refer to this as “putting an animal to sleep”. The finality of death is a difficult concept, especially for children. Children can be confused and even frightened by the term “putting to sleep” if they see the lifeless pet after the euthanasia is performed.

When preparing for an appointment to have a terminally ill pet euthanized, it is best to speak in honest terms, at an appropriate level of detail for the child’s age. Very small children need to know that this is final — the pet isn’t going to wake up or come back. To say that the pet “went away” or is “in heaven” without offering any other details can also confuse children. Older children need to know the reasons why this decision is being made, and why it is humane for the suffering animal.

To be or not to be present at the actual euthanasia is a question many adults grapple with. This is a personal decision and one that should be discussed with your veterinarian. It is common practice that children under a certain age are not allowed to be present for the actual euthanasia. Children, especially under the age of 5, have a hard enough time understanding the concept of death and witnessing the event does not make it easier to understand or cope.

It is important to realize that when humans (adults and children) are upset, the pet is, too. While difficult, it is important that the humans try to lend support and comfort their animal friend in this last time of need. Seeing their humans upset may upset the pet, too.

Sudden Death or Finding a Pet Dead

For situations where the animal is fatally injured or is found dead from unknown causes, children need to be assured that the animal is no longer in pain. The shock can be more emotional than a “prepared for” death. If veterinary care was attempted, the child should be reminded that sometimes pets don’t survive, despite the attempts to save them.

Signs of Grief in Children

Children may take longer to grieve or “get over” the loss of a pet than adults. A short time of depression, acting out, or gloominess can be expected and should go away. Longer periods or abnormal activity following loss should be addressed by the parent, a counselor, or a grief/loss support resource. Warning signs of severe or prolonged grief will vary significantly with the variables of the child’s age, relationship with the pet, emotional maturity, circumstances involved with the death, and so on, but here are some general guidelines for recognizing grief in children:

  • Not interested in usual activities, withdrawing from friends and family

  • Eating considerably less than usual

  • Reverting to pre-potty training or bedwetting

  • Afraid of being alone or going to sleep, nightmares

  • Preoccupied with thoughts of death

Talking about the death of a pet with your child is a good first step. For more assistance and guidance, know that there are many grief and loss support resources and hotlines, many of them free of charge, available online and over the phone.

Moving Forward and the Time to Heal

Remembering the deceased pet

It is important to never belittle or ignore the child’s relationship with the deceased pet. To say that it was “just a goldfish, and we can get a new one tomorrow” dismisses the importance of the human-animal bond and does not address the child’s grief. Children often have imaginary friends that warrant conversations and emotions. Pets are real. They warrant true feelings and emotions, too. Take the time to remember your pet with your kids and do something special to help them navigate their feelings.


Having a burial, memorial, or similar ceremony helps to reinforce the importance of the pet’s life and mark the death event. Children should be allowed to participate in whatever way is appropriate. From helping mark the grave site, decorate the urn of ashes, or draw pictures of happy times together with the pet—whatever activity best fits with the child and allows them to say goodbye in their own way.

Getting a new pet

Getting a new pet is a very personal choice. Children should not be rushed into getting another pet to help them “get over” the deceased pet. One pet does not replace another, and getting a new pet too soon may only cause the child to resent or even mistreat the new pet. Only once a child can speak openly about a deceased pet and shows interest in a new pet should the subject of a new pet be discussed.

Dealing with the loss of a pet is never easy, but you are not alone. There are many grief/loss support resources available.

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How Dogs Experience Grief

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Losing a pet is a sad and stressful situation for everyone, including the other dogs in the household. You may not realize it, but dogs do grieve the loss of a companion. If you are dealing with the death of one of your dogs, there are several things you can do to help your remaining dog (or dogs) get through this difficult time.

What to expect after your dog loses a friend

Just like people, all dogs react differently to loss. Some dogs seem to act completely normal while others get deeply depressed. Certain dogs may develop health or behavior issues. Here are some common dog reactions to the death of another dog:

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If you notice any signs of grief in your dog, call your vet today.

  • Personality changes. Some dogs may seem to change some of their behaviors. If the dog that passed away was a leader, the dog left behind may feel it is now their responsibility to take on that job. You may notice them barking more at passersby or acting more outgoing or confident. Or, you may notice your dog is more withdrawn and quiet.

  • Physical symptoms. Dogs left behind may have physical symptoms in response to the loss of another pet. Some common symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, and sometimes even illness.

  • No signs. Some dogs may not even show signs after losing a companion dog. This does not mean the dog is not experiencing some kind of grief.

Stick to your routine

No matter how your dog may react to the loss of another pet, they are likely feeling the stress over the changes in the household. One of the best ways you can help your dog adjust to the loss is to stick as carefully and closely to their normal routine. Continue to feed and walk them at the same times. By sticking to the usual schedule, you are reducing their stress a great deal. Keeping a routine will also help you cope with your own grief of losing a pet.

Provide more exercise and stimulation

Chances are high that the dog that passed away played a large role in the day-to-day life of your other dog. They may have played together, napped together, ate together. Losing this relationship may leave your remaining dog feeling anxious or bored. You can help relieve or help deal with this boredom and anxiety by providing them more exercise and mental stimulation.

Some things you can do for your dog include going for an additional walk each day, providing plenty of interesting toys, starting an obedience program, and playing extra little games like fetch or tug-of-war. You can also just make time for extra cuddling and bonding time with one another.

Should I get another dog?

One of the first pieces of advice people often hear when they lose a dog is to run right out and get another dog. This is not always the right choice. Before you get another dog, here are a few things to consider:

  • Are you ready for another dog? Your life may have changed a great deal wince you first brought your dogs home and new dogs are often a lot of work. Make sure you are prepared and emotionally ready for this kind of commitment before taking on a new dog.

  • Make sure your dog will accept another dog. Although your dogs were inseparable before, this does not guarantee the remaining dog will have the same relationship with a new dog. We suggest before you bring a new song home, test out their interactions beforehand.

So let’s reiterate. Some dogs show physical symptoms of grief. Others may exhibit behavior changes. Stick to your routine and give your remaining dog lots of exercise and attention. If you notice further signs of concern or physical illness, schedule an appointment to speak with your vet.

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