Letting children, especially young children, and pets, especially new ones, play can be a little nerve wracking. The foremost worry is for the safety of the children, of course — it's more likely that an animal would physically hurt a child than the other way around. Unfortunately, kids can hurt pets too, and what's more, they can antagonize a pet to the point the animal will act out.
This is mostly due to two factors. First, children are still growing, learning, and testing boundaries, coupled with still learning how to verbalize their thoughts and needs. Second, pets can't verbalize at all, making it more difficult for them to communicate when they don't like something, want certain behaviors to stop, or are hurting. As a parent, you need to step in and fill this fundamental gap and help them understand each other.
Keep in mind that some animals simply aren't comfortable around children, and that's okay. When adopting a new pet, especially if it's older, make sure to talk to the shelter or rescue organization staff to make sure the animal is safe to live with kids. Similarly, if you already have kids and kid-friendly pets but are ready to adopt a new pet, make sure to ask if the animal is also comfortable with other animals. Bringing a pet into a home where it's uncomfortable will only make them more and more stressed, and thus more likely to hurt someone.
Pet loss can be devastating for owners of all ages. It is okay to grieve for the loss of your beloved companion. There is no one way to grieve and it can vary from pet to pet. Everyone’s experience can be different. We recognize that pets are an integral part of your family and losing them can be extremely difficult. There are many resources available to help you work through the loss. If you find you are having trouble coping alone, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. We are here to help you in any way we can through the entire life (and loss) of your pet. Here are some resources you may find useful during this difficult time.
For many children, the loss of a pet will be their first experience with death and can help them learn to cope with other losses during their lifetime.
Breaking the news that your pet has died will likely be very distressing so you should try and do so in a place where your child feels safe and secure; and there are minimal distractions. What and how you tell your children will depend largely on their age and maturity level.
If you are getting ready to euthanize your pet you should consider preparing your children by explaining to them that the veterinarian did everything they could for your pet, that he wouldn’t or couldn’t get better and that it is the kindest way for your pet to die without feeling hurt or scared. You may wish to give your children the option of saying a final goodbye to their pet.
It is recommended not to use the words ‘sleep’ in any context as younger children may take this literally and become frightened of going to sleep themselves either for anesthesia in the future, or even just going to sleep at night.
If your pet’s death is unexpected then calmly and simply explain the basic details of what happened, for example "Rover’s heart was poor and couldn’t work anymore". Using words like death and dying may be a good way to explain what they are to your child. You need to make sure that they realize that your pet is unable to come back to them.
Whether your pet was euthanized or was taken from you suddenly, you should let your child’s questions guide how much information you provide them.
Can I just tell my child that their pet went away?
You could tell your child that their pet has gone away, but this isn’t advisable as they may expect their pet to return to them. Alternatively if they find out the truth this can anger or upset them.
What do I tell my child if they ask what happens after death?
Only you can decide what is appropriate to tell your children, and you may choose to answer based on your personal beliefs. However it is ok to tell your children that you don’t know and that what happens after death is a mystery.
How might my child react?
Your children may experience grief in the same way that you do. However they choose to express themselves you should try and support and understand them.
These are some books that can be helpful for explaining the loss of a pet to a child:
When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Ryant
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Ryant