September 11, 2020
When a family pet dies, the loss leaves a hole in everyone's heart, but a new study suggests that for children, the grief can have a long-lasting impact on their mental health.
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that some children and adolescents experience sustained psychological distress that could lead to depression three or more years after the death of a family pet.
"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," Katherine Crawford, previously with the Center for Genomic Medicine at MGH, and lead author of the study, said.
"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," she said.
Previous research has shown the loss of a beloved pet can feel as intense as the loss of a human loved one, but this is the first study to look specifically at children's attachment to pets and how their mental health might be affected by the loss. The research is published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
The researchers analyzed the mental and emotional health of 6,260 children who had either never loved a pet, loved and lost a pet, or loved a pet without loss. The children and their mothers were enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in Bristol, England, which collected data on the experience of pet ownership and pet loss on children up to 8 years old.
Erin Dunn, of Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for Genomic Medicine and department of psychiatry, said that "the association between exposure to a pet's death and psychopathology symptoms in childhood occurred regardless of the child's socioeconomic status or hardships they had already endured in their young lives."
The researchers were surprised to find that the symptoms of depression were more pronounced in boy than in girls. This was across the board no matter at what age a child suffered the loss of pet or how fresh the experience was.
The health benefits – both physical and mental – of owning a pet are well documented. Not only does it decrease blood pressure and cholesterol and triglyceride levels, it reduces feelings of loneliness and depression. Pets particularly provide children with affection and comfort and help them learn empathy, self-esteem and social competence.
It is because of these strong bonds that the grieving process shouldn't be taken lightly by parents or pediatricians, the researchers said.
"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 said. "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."