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Death Of A Pet May Trigger Long Term Grief In Children

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The death of a family pet is hard on the whole family. Losing a furry family member is losing a family member, and each person deals with that grief uniquely.

Research supports, however, that the grief in children that’s triggered by the loss of a pet can be significant and profound, and can even lead to mental health issues even years after the death.

Related: Losing A Pet; Dealing With The Death Of Your Dog

Researchers with the Massachusetts General Hospital published a report in Eurpean Child & Adolescent Psychiatry that is one of the first to look at the mental health responses in children when a pet dies. Looking at survey data from 6,260 children participating gin the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in Bristol, England, the researchers found pet death brought about significant and often prolonged grief in children.

The research team found that the association between exposure to a pet’s death and the grief and trauma children felt as a result occurred despite a child’s socio-economic status or prior traumas they may have already endured in their lives.

Katherine Crawford is a Certified Genetic Counselor and the lead author of the study. She said that one of the first major losses a child will probably have in their life is the death of a pet, and that impact can be traumatic, particularly if the pet feels like a member of the family. Crawford says it’s imperative that clinicians and parents recognize the symptoms of their child’s grief, and take it seriously –not to brush it off as ‘just a dog.’

Related: How To Prepare For Your Dog’s Journey Across The Rainbow Bridge

The data showed that 63% of children with pets were exposed to the death of a pet by the time they were 7-years-old. Dr. Erin Dunn is a senior author of the study and said that that a child’s stage in life and even prior trauma didn’t diminish the association between the death of a pet and psychological symptoms occurring in the children.

The research team found that male children seemed to have more pronounced mental health distress after the loss of their pet, and that mental health impact and loss didn’t lessen based on when the pet died during childhood, how recently the pet had died or how many times the child experienced the death of a pet. Dr. Dunn says this highlights the strength and durability of the bond children form with pets even at very early ages, and how the loss can affect them even years later. 

Crawford says that adults need to really pay attention to the feelings and emotions of their children after the death of a pet, and note if the feelings and emotions seem deeper or last longer than they might expect. This might represent complicated grief, and a child may benefit greatly in talking to someone either in a sympathetic or therapeutic way. 

Though more research is needed to look at specifics of child grief and pet loss, parents, pediatricians and caregivers should take note and take the grief and any other psychological manifestations their children show seriously.

Because as we all know, it’s not ‘just a dog,’ or ‘just a cat.’ It’s a family member, and losing a family member hurts.


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