Loss of a pet may lead to mental health problems in children, especially boys

BOSTON — Countless books and movies focus on the close bond kids share with their pets. Indeed, millions of children consider their dog, cat, or other critter to be just as much a member of the family as mom or dad. Of course it’s always a tough time whenever a beloved pet passes away. A new study finds that the loss of a pet, however, may predict future mental health issues in children.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital say that when a child forms a strong emotional attachment to a pet, and then the pet passes away, they may experience intense psychological distress. This sets the stage for adolescent depression as far as three years or more into the future.

“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,” says lead study author Katherine Crawford, previously with the Center for Genomic Medicine at MGH, in a release. “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.”

Children often experience loss of a pet at a young age

Just about half of all households in developed nations house at least one pet, and it’s no wonder why. Pets add joy to every member of the family’s life, but especially so for children. Kids often form relationships with their pets that mimic human connections. They turn to their pet for affection, security, and reassurance. So, while the benefits of pet ownership are clear for children, this study is shedding some light on the potential drawbacks once that pet inevitably passes away.

According to this research, 63% of pet-owning children deal with the death of a pet before their seventh birthday.

Researchers used a data sample consisting of 6,260 children for this study. Both child and mother responses in this dataset allowed the study’s authors to examine the mental health impact of losing a pet on children up to eight years old.

“Thanks to this cohort, we were able to analyze the mental and emotional health of children after examining their experiences with pet death over an extended period,” explains senior study author Erin Dunn, ScD, MPH, with the MGH Center for Genomic Medicine and Department of Psychiatry. “And we observed that the association between exposure to a pet’s death and psychopathology symptoms in childhood occurred regardless of the child’s socio-economic status or hardships they had already endured in their young lives.”

Boys impacted more than girls

Researchers note that boys seem to deal with more mental health problems after a pet’s death than girls. Also, it doesn’t seem to matter the child’s age when a pet dies, or if they’d already lost an earlier pet.

Dunn comments that this last finding illustrates “the durability of the bond with pets that is formed at a very early age, and how it can affect children across their development.” Thus, parents and other caregivers should never take the loss of a pet lightly, particularly when it comes to a child’s emotions and mental state.

“Adults need to pay attention to whether those feelings are deeper and more profound and if they’re lasting longer than might have been expected,” Crawford concludes. “They could be signs of complicated grief and having someone to talk to in a sympathetic or therapeutic way may be extremely helpful for a child who is grieving.”

The study is published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

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