Handling the Death of a Family Pet

Pets, be it a furry dog, fluffy cat, or bright orange fish, become honorary family members quite quickly. Dealing with the Death of a PetHave you glanced at the latest family drawing your child created at school? My guess is the family pet is in the mix. Handling the death of the family pet can be an overwhelming and emotional experience not only for parents, but for children in the family as well. Below are some ways to help your child through this difficult time:

Planning the Goodbye

Although some pet deaths are unexpected, when they are not it is important that your child be able to take part in the goodbye process in an age-appropriate way. This could include writing a goodbye letter to their furry friend or drawing their pet a picture. These activities can help with the grieving process as they allow your child to review positive memories and experiences, as well as express their feelings in a healthy way. For younger children, it may also be helpful to read children’s books addressing this topic as a jumping off point for parent-child conversations related to your pet.

Informing your Child’s Support System

Letting your child’s teachers and caregivers know about the recent passing of a pet can create a safe environment for your child to express their feelings. Children, just like adults, may seem off, irritable, or sad during these times. When adults caring for children are made aware of recent events, they can be on the lookout for these emotional changes and be more accommodating as needed.

Moving Forward After Death

Each family is different regarding their interest in continuing to care for a pet. As the grieving process unfolds it may be helpful to speak with your child about the possibility of adopting a new family pet. Although your previous pet is irreplaceable, the process of adopting a new pet can allow for your family to work together and create a caring home for a pet in need.

NSPT offers services in Bucktown, Evanston, Highland Park, Lincolnwood, Glenview, Lake Bluff, Des Plaines, Hinsdale and Milwaukee. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates!

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Rachel Ostrov

Rachel Ostrov

Rachel Ostrov is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with experience working with children, adolescents, young adults, and their families. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Northwestern University in Psychology and her Master of Arts degree from the University of Chicago in Social Work. Rachel has had the opportunity to practice in a variety of mental health settings including at North Shore University Health System, Youth Services of Glenview, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and Knapp Therapeutic Day School. She has treated children and adolescents experiencing a wide range of challenges including anxiety, depression, social skill difficulties, and environmental stressors.

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Dogs can benefit from OT, too!

On a recent flight, I was browsing through the SkyMall magazine, when I came across an ad for “the best solution for dog anxiety, guaranteed!” The product, Thundershirt, is a pressure garment designed to be worn by dogs to assist with anxiety. The product’s design is actually based on a principle from the Sensory Processing theory, which I use in my practice on a daily basis. dog with vestThe idea behind the Thundershirt is that it provides continuous pressure to the dog’s body, thus creating a calming effect; this belief stems from the concept of proprioception according to Sensory Integration theory. Proprioceptive input is the input the body receives from its muscles and joints. When the nervous system receives proprioceptive input, it has a soothing effect on the body.

In my pediatric occupational therapy sessions, I use weighted blankets, weighted vests, or weighted lap pads** to provide this calming input for myclients who may have difficulty sitting still for a board game or for a client whose body is moving too fast for the activity at hand. I often recommend weighted items as part of a home exercise program for children who have difficulty falling asleep at night or who require help relaxing their body to focus on homework. In fact, I have also benefited from a deep pressure hug or curling up under a big blanket when feeling stressed or upset, both of which help to ease my mind. Not only will human adults and children find occupational therapy principles useful, but dogs can too!

What have your experiences been with the use of weighted items?

**There are weight and usage guidelines when using weighted objects with children. Be sure to contact your occupational therapist for assistance in determining the appropriate weighted product for your child.

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Dana Pais

Dana Pais

Dana Pais, OTD, OTR/L is an occupational therapist who obtained her Masters of Occupational Therapy (MS) and Doctorate of Occupational Therapy (OTD) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During her doctoral studies, she spent time working in Lima, Peru at the Centro Ann Sullivan del Peru (CASP), a center for families and their children with cognitive and physical disabilities, where she provided intervention for many children and their families in the areas of low vision accessibility, independent living, school inclusion and supportive employment. Her interests include sensory processing and its impact on daily life and managing visual deficits. She is passionate about helping children reach their full potential in every aspect of their lives.

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How Dogs Help Children Develop Social and Emotional Skills

Is your child begging for a puppy? If you have the means to take care of one, you might want to consider it. Sure they cost money, make big messes, and need to be walked on a timed schedule. They also teach responsibility and impact social and emotional development in some very valuable and interesting ways.boy kissing dog

A study comparing children with dogs at home to those without, found that the children who were dog owners were significantly more empathic and pro-social (Vidovic, Stetic & Bratko). The
stronger the attachment to the dog, the stronger this effect may be. The study also found that children with higher levels of attachment to pets reported more positive feelings about their family and home, than those with low attachment to pets. A dog can make a home feel safe and warm. Children and adults alike feel a unique sense of security just knowing that they can depend on that unconditional comfort every day. Children respond wonderfully to the love that given by dogs, so genuine and free of judgment.

When it comes to child development, I find the role of pets fascinating. Research speculates that companionship with a pet not only provides gratification for the child, but it also may help them create better relationships with other people.

I don’t mean to leave out cats, etc—all pets are great! Research tends to focus more on dogs as they are able to serve a variety of functions and are often trained as therapy dogs, service dogs, etc. From my own personal experiences with dogs, all of what I’ve heard is true. I believe growing up with a dog helped me to be empathic toward others, and it’s a unique bond I continue with my own dog now.

Pets Help Us Improve Our:

• Empathy skills

• Social skills

• Relationships

• Coping skills

• Self-esteem

• Family climate

• Responsibility

• Stress management


Vidovic V., Stetic V., Bratko D. (1999). Pet Ownership, Type of Pet and Socio-Emotional Development of School Children. Originally published in Anthrozoos, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1999, pps 211-217.

*North Shore Pediatric Therapy, Inc. (NSPT) intends for responses to the blogs to provide general educational information to the readership of this website; all content and answers to questions should not be understood to be specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). Questions submitted to this blog are not guaranteed to receive responses. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by NSPT to people submitting questions. Always consult with your health professional first before initiating or changing any aspect of your treatment regimen.


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Marnie Ehrenberg

Marnie Ehrenberg, M.A., LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor. Marnie earned her Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. There, she also acquired strong clinical experience in child development by working with special needs children. Marnie earned her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Indiana University, where her passion for helping children and families began to blossom into a professional career. Marnie currently practices psychotherapy and counseling, using creative play therapy techniques to work through social and emotional difficulties and also stimulate developmental needs. Marnie creates customized treatment plans to address a wide range of disorders including, but not limited to: anxiety, depression, ADHD, adjustment, and autism spectrum disorders. In addition, Marnie helps children, adolescents and parents acquire the skills necessary to cope with a range of difficult life experiences such as divorce, grief and loss, behavior problems, social skills, family conflict, and sibling rivalry.

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The Death Of A Pet: How To Help Your Child Cope

When your family adopts a pet, it becomes a part of the family. When the pet grows old and becomes ill, inevitably you must discuss the possibility of the death of your beloved pet. For many children, losing a pet is the first experience they have with death, and the grieving process can be difficult for themYoung Boy Hugging Dog. As you talk with your children about the death of your pet, it is important to listen to their concerns, questions, and feelings.

Euthanizing Your Pet

No one wants a  pet to suffer any longer than necessary, so some families decide it is best to euthanize their pet. Euthanizing a pet involves “death by injection” for a terminally ill or suffering animal.

If you decide to euthanize your pet, be honest with your children. Talk about death before it happens using age-appropriate terms. For instance, “We all love Bailey so much. She is very, very sick and can’t do the things she used to like to do because she is in so much pain. The veterinarian said that was Bailey’s way of showing us that she could no longer live the life she was used to living. She said she could help Bailey die, so Bailey wouldn’t hurt anymore.” Make sure that young children know that very ill pets can be euthanized, but sick children never are.

Be Honest With Your Child About What Happened to Your Pet

When your pet dies, do not tell your child that the pet has run away. This explanation can leave your child wondering whether he did something to make the pet want to leave. Also, don’t tell your child that the pet has gone to a farm. This could give your child the false hope that he can see the pet again.

Although adults often talk about having to put their pet “to sleep”, it is not recommended that parents use this terminology with young children (under the age of 6). For young children, sleeping implies that the animal will eventually wake up. When the pet doesn’t wake up, young children can develop fears about going to sleep.

I also recommend that you don’t tell your children that you are putting your pet “down” because often parents will use the same term when they put an infant down for a nap. This can be very confusing for young children.

Managing Grief Over The Loss Of Your Pet

It is healthy for children to see that you are also sad about the death of your pet. It’s a great way for children to understand that being sad is okay. You can tell your children, “I’m so sad because I really miss Bailey.”

Everyone grieves differently, so if your child doesn’t cry, let her know it is okay to show her feelings any way that feels comfortable. Your child may enjoy showing her feelings by looking at pictures of the pet, drawing her own pictures, or telling stories about  positive and silly memories of her pet. Why not make a book of everyone in the family’s favorite memories of the pet, complete with photographs or drawings? It will be a great keepsake for years to come.

What Happens To The Pet After He Dies?

If your family’s religious or spiritual beliefs impact how you view death, share them with your child. There is also a poem about the death of a pet called Rainbow Bridge that has a beautiful way of describing where the pet goes once she dies. I recommend that families only share the first three paragraphs with small children, as the next two paragraphs discuss people reuniting with a pet when they die. If your child is having a particularly difficult time with the death of your pet, this can be very unsettling.

When To Adopt a New Pet

It is a very personal decision as to whether or when it is appropriate. Children should not be encouraged to get a new pet merely to “get over” the loss of their pet. A new pet doesn’t replace their beloved pet. Once your child can speak openly about the pet that died and begins to show an interest in a new pet, then the family can discuss if it is the right time.

*North Shore Pediatric Therapy, Inc. (NSPT) intends for responses to the blogs to provide general educational information to the readership of this website; all content and answers to questions should not be understood to be specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). Questions submitted to this blog are not guaranteed to receive responses. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by NSPT to people submitting questions. Always consult with your health professional first before initiating or changing any aspect of your treatment regimen.


Dori Mages

Dori J. Mages, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker who earned her Master of Social Work from The University of Illinois at Chicago's Jane Addams College of Social Work in 1997. She also has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dori has worked with children, adolescents, and families since 1994 in several areas of social work practice including: foster care, schools, hospitals, and private practice. She earned her Type 73 school social work certification in 1997 and has worked with children of all needs in the public schools for 7 years. She knows the importance of collaborating with parents, teachers and school staff (with parental consent) to provide the most beneficial services. Dori has also been interviewed on ABC and NBC news as an expert discussing therapeutic topics and articles she has written for North Shore Pediatric Therapy. As a wife and mother of three, she understands the challenges and rewards of raising children and is compassionate about helping children and families navigate the difficult times. Dori prides herself on being a valuable coach and "cheerleader" to the families she serves and strives to give families the tools they will need to improve their quality of life long after therapy has ended.

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