They say that pets are family members, and a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital found that the death of a family pet can trigger profound and prolonged grief in children.
The study was published in European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) team found that the strong emotional attachment children have to their pets may result in significant and measurable grief that can even be an indicator of depression when the pet dies. This psychological distress can last as long as three or more years after the pet has passed.
Katherine Crawford is a Certified Genetic Counselor who was previously with the Center for Genomic Medicine at MGH and is the lead author of the study. She says that the death of a pet was often associated with increased mental health symptoms in children. This was real reaction, and should be taken seriously by the parents and physicians of children. Too often, “It’s just a dog,” may undervalue the real and attached feelings that children have when their pet dies.
The study found that the bonds children form with pets can look like the bonds they have in secure relationships, most notably in the way that they offer affection, reassurance and protection. Almost half of all households in first-world countries have at least one pet, and previous studies have shown that children share their fears and emotions with pets for comfort and security. Additionally, pet ownership has shown to lead to increased empathy, self-esteem and social confidence in children. As is almost always the case with pets, though, their only problem is that they don’t live long enough and the MGH study found that 63% of children who have pets lose at least one during the first seven years of their life.
We know that adults face grief and loss when their pet dies and the MGH team is the first to look at the mental responses to children in the face of the death of their pet. They looked at 6,260 children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in Bristol, England. This data looked at pet ownership experiences and pet loss for children from birth through age eight.
Dr. Erin Dunn is with the MGH Center for Genomic Medicine and the Department of Psychiatry and a senior author of the study. She said they looked that the association between the exposure to a pet’s death and the psychopathological symptoms that happened in childhood that were irrespective of their socio-economic status or other trials and hardships they may have gone through in their lives. The data let them look at this information over an extended period.
They found that the relationship between greater mental distress and pet death was more pronounced in males over female children, and that the strength of the association was independent of when the pet died during childhood. They also found that the number of times a child had been exposed to the death of a pet as well as how recently the death occurred didn’t weaken the propensity to suffer trauma and grief.
Related: How to Help Children When a Pet Dies
It’s a critical study because it shows the need for parents and caregivers–including pediatricians–to realize the short and long-term impact that the death of a pet can have on children. If it looks as if a child has lost an important family member, it may be because that’s just how that child feels, and those feelings need to be addressed and supported. Crawford says that the death of a pet could result in longer-term complicated grief, and the talking about loss with a sympathetic or therapeutic listener can be all the difference in a child who is grieving their beloved pet.