According to new research the death of a family pet can trigger a sense of grief in children that is profound and prolonged, and can potentially lead to subsequent mental health issues. More specifically, scientists found that the strong emotional attachment of youngsters to pets might result in measurable psychological distress that can serve as an indicator of depression in children and adolescents for as long as three years or more after the loss of a beloved pet.
“We found this experience of pet death is often associated with elevated mental health symptoms in children, and that parents and physicians need to recognize and take those symptoms seriously, not simply brush them off.” -Katherine Crawford, CGC, Researcher
The study included a sample of 6,260 children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), in Bristol, England. This population-based sample is replete with data collected from mothers and children that enabled researchers to track the experience of pet ownership and pet loss from a child’s early age up to eight years.
Study Findings Overview
The bonds that children form with pets can resemble secure human relationships in terms of providing affection, protection and reassurance. Previous studies have shown that children often turn to pets for comfort and to voice their fears and emotional experiences. While the increased empathy, self-esteem and social competence that often flow from this interaction is clearly beneficial, the downside is the exposure of children to the death of a pet which the current research revealed occurs with 63 percent of children with pets during their first seven years of life. Researchers also learned that the relationship between pet death and increased psychopathology was more pronounced in male than female children.
The study stressed the importance of parents, caregivers and pediatricians recognizing and taking seriously the short- and long-term psychological reactions of children to the death of a pet — reactions which can mimic a child’s response to the loss of other important family members.
Journal Reference: Katherine M. Crawford, Yiwen Zhu, Kathryn A. Davis, Samantha Ernst, Kristina Jacobsson, Kristen Nishimi, Andrew D. A. C. Smith, Erin C. Dunn. The mental health effects of pet death during childhood: is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2020; DOI: 10.1007/s00787-020-01594-5