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Pet death may be more traumatic than thought for children

Pank Jit Sin
01 Oct 2020

While the death of a family pet may be treated as part and parcel of growing up, children may develop a profound and prolonged sense of grief which, left untreated, may lead to subsequent mental health issues, reveals a new study.

According to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston, US, children’s emotional attachment to their pets could lead to quantifiable psychological distress that can serve as an indicator of depression in children and adolescents, lasting 3 years or longer after their pet’s death. The study was published in the European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry journal. [Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00787-020-01594-5 Accessed on 14 September 2020]


According to lead author Katherine Crawford, previously a genetic counsellor with the Center for Genomic Medicine, MGH, a pet’s death is likely one of the first major losses encountered by a child. Thus the “impact can be traumatic, especially when that pet feels like a member of the family.”  The study established the fact that a pet’s death is often correlated with elevated mental health symptoms in children, and that parents and doctors need to acknowledge and take those symptoms seriously.

The study reported that the bonds children establish with pets can be similar to those which they generate with a human, as the pet can provide affection, protection and reassurance. Previous studies have established that children resort to pets for comfort and confide their fears and emotional experiences. Children benefit from increased empathy, self-esteem and social competence as a result of such interaction.

However, the disadvantage is that the child will probably be exposed to the death of a pet, which occurs in 63 percent of the children with pets within the first 7 years of life, the study noted.

Additionally, the study noted that the relationship between pet death and increased risk of mental health issues was more evident in boys rather than girls. The strength of this association was independent of when the pet’s death occurred during childhood, and how many times or how recently it occurred. According to Erin Dunn, assistant professor of psychiatry, of the MGH Center for Genomic Medicine and Department of Psychiatry, the additional finding is a testament to the durability of the bond that is formed between children and their pet at an early age, and how that bond can affect children’s development.

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