Death of a pet could be traumatic for children and may trigger mental health issues in them, warns study
The death of a pet should be treated as the loss of other strong emotional attachments, and parents and physicians should be prepared to treat it as such, investigators emphasize
Growing evidence suggests children form deep emotional attachments to their pets, but little is known about children’s emotional reactions to a pet’s death, say experts. Researchers have now found that the death of a family pet can trigger a sense of grief in children that is profound and prolonged, and it can potentially lead to subsequent mental health issues. According to the team from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), 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 think there are three key findings of the study: pet death is correlated with increased symptoms of mental health problems in children. These associations were found even after taking into account other adversities, and the negative effects of pet loss on children’s mental health appear to be stronger for boys than girls,” senior author of the study, Erin C Dunn, assistant professor with the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit, Center for Genomic Medicine at MGH, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
According to the research team, 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. For their analysis, the authors decided to examine mental health responses in children to the loss of a pet. It is based on a sample of 6,260 children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), in Bristol, England. The population-based sample has 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. “Pet ownership was assessed in a questionnaire about living arrangements, where the mother indicated if she owned a pet and if so, how many. This questionnaire was completed at five time periods when the child was 8 months, 21 months (1.75 years), 33 months (2.75 years), 47 months (3.9 years), and 84 months (7 years) of age,” says the study published in the European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
To determine children’s exposure to pet death, the investigators asked mothers to indicate whether or not the child had been exposed to pet death since the last questionnaire. This questionnaire was completed at six time periods when the child was 18 months (1.5 years), 30 months (2.5 years), 42 months (3.5 years), 60 months (5 years), 72 months (6 years), and 84 months (7 years) of age. The analysis reveals that pet ownership was common, with most children (87%) in the sample having owned a pet at some point in childhood. Pet death was also a common childhood experience, with a substantial proportion (53%) of children having lost a pet during the first 7 years of life.
The results suggest that pet death may be traumatic for children and that children who have pets may show signs of mental health difficulties if their pet dies. The authors found that these experiences of pet death were associated with “elevated psychopathology symptoms”. This association was observed even after accounting for other adverse factors known to increase child risk for poor mental health, such as low socioeconomic status, maternal history of depression and exposure to child abuse.
“One of the first major losses a child will encounter is likely to be the death of a pet, and the impact can be traumatic, especially when that pet feels like a member of the family. 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,” explains lead author of the study Katherine Crawford. A genetic counselor previously with the Center for Genomic Medicine, Crawford is now at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island.
Researchers also learned that the relationship between pet death and increased psychopathology was more pronounced in male than female children and that the strength of the association was independent of when the pet’s death occurred during childhood, and how many times or how recently it occurred. According to Dunn, this latter finding speaks to “the durability of the bond with pets that is formed at a very early age, and how it can affect children across their development”.
Based on their findings, the investigators have 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 that they say can mimic a child’s response to the loss of other important family members. The death of a pet should be treated as the loss of other strong emotional attachments, and parents and physicians should be prepared to treat it as such, they emphasize. “Take pet death experiences seriously. Check-in with children after they have experienced the loss of a pet. Validate any feelings of grief and loss they may have. Pay attention to how serious those feelings are and how long they last. Seek professional help if you have worries about how your child is doing,” recommends Dunn.