Helping My Child Through the Loss of a Family Pet


Losing a cherished family pet is devastating and that loss manifests in a multitude of ways in each family member. Our family recently put down our 16-year-old cat, Tigger. His health had been steadily declining, and he took a turn for the worse within the last month. It was the humane option rather than watching him struggle.

My ex and I had Tigger since he was an eight-week-old kitten. I remember the day we picked him out at the ASPCA, where a new litter of kittens was available for adoption. The last kennel at the end of the row was full of meowing kittens who were pawing at the cage door for attention. My ex took one look into the kennel and said, “I want that one,” as he pointed to the tiny orange kitten who was cowering in the back of the kennel. And thus, Tigger joined us along with my four-year-old cat, Zoe.

When I was pregnant with my son, we moved to Central Mass and they came with us. By then, Zoe was 16 and Tigger was 11. Unfortunately, Zoe’s health took a staggering turn for the worse and we put her to sleep in early 2020. My son was four months old. He says he remembers her, but I think he sees the pictures we have of her in our homes and says he has memories of her.

When we separated and moved out of our house, my ex took Tigger. Recently, he wasn’t coming down the stairs when I stopped by, nor was he meowing during nightly video calls with my son. We knew the time was imminent. We explained to our son that Tigger was getting old, his health was declining, and he wouldn’t be with us for very much longer. Our son’s response was always, “Okay”, and he’d run off to play with his trucks and trains.

I’m a highly sensitive empathetic person, and I see those same qualities in my son. I found his lack of emotional response baffling. I understand that at four, he processes events and emotions differently. While I may get sad and cry at the thought of putting Tigger to sleep, my son seemed rather indifferent to the notion. I attributed it to not having experienced permanent loss before.

When the time came to schedule Tigger’s last vet appointment, we discussed the outcome, and how to tell our son. We told him that Tigger would go to his forever sleep soon and that we would go over to Daddy’s house to spend time with Tigger and say goodbye. My son’s response was still not as expected. We said it’s okay to cry and to feel sad. Our son asked us if they’d be getting another cat. There was a not-at-this-time discussion with his dad, but that they’d keep the fancy litter box and feeder dish. My son seemed pretty content with that response.

It wasn’t sadness that overcame my son, but anxiety. He became fixated on trash, specifically litter in parking lots. My son was having regular meltdowns at school drop-off, and his teachers were noting anxious feelings throughout the school day. I interpreted this behavior as trying to control his environment because one of his home environments was changing and that change was out of his control. He was processing the loss of the family pet through anxiety. It was certainly a challenge, but his dad and I spoke about what to do, what to say, and how to handle it (yay for healthy co-parenting).

I checked out books from the library about losing a pet, anxiety, and feeling worried. I spoke to my son about his feelings. We read the books together. When his anxiety would peak, I took the approach of having him stop and think critically about the situation. Was it a grown-up thing or a kid thing? He would stop, and say “A grown-up thing”, and I said, “Good, I don’t want you to think about that, I want you to focus on kid things.”

Over the next couple of weeks, my son’s anxiety decreased. He seemed less affected by the loss, and less concerned about things outside of his control. As parents, we processed our own emotions, showing our son that it’s okay to be sad about the loss of a pet, and simultaneously helped regulate our son’s emotions when he needed support. It was certainly a learning experience for our family.

The following list of books are available through the library that helped us through this transition:

“The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst
“When a Pet Dies” by Fred Rogers
“The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” by Judith Viorst
“Wilma Jean the Worry Machine” by Julia Cook
“Please Explain ‘Anxiety’ to Me!” by Laurie Zelinger, PhD., RPT-S & Jordan Zelinger, M.S. Ed.


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