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Pet Ownership Offers Emotional Life Skills to Children

Pet Ownership Offers Emotional Life Skills to Children

A new paper discusses how the death of a pet helps children begin to understand the realities of life within their home environment.

Given the relatively short lifespans of many pets, it’s not unusual for children to witness the death of pets. But “how children understand death in these moments, and the ideas, feelings, and responses they have when their pets die are largely ignored topics,” said Joshua J. Russell, Ph.D.

In his research Russell, an assistant professor of animal behavior, ecology and conservation (ABEC) at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., has discovered that pets are more than just animals to children.

“They often see themselves as the center of their pets’ affections,” says Russell, who conducted one-on-one interviews with children between the ages of six and 13. “They describe their pets as siblings or best friends with whom they have strong connections.”

For example, Neville, a 13-year-old boy was shaken by the sudden death of his cat, even though it occurred two years earlier. “I asked Neville how he felt when he learned his cat was struck by a car and he replied, ‘My life was over.’”

Unfortunately, the joy of owning a pet often goes hand-in-hand with the heartbreak of losing one. Children, in particular, “have a distinct sense of existential fairness around whether or not an animal lived until an appropriate age,” Russell explains.

A short lifespan “is normal for hamsters and fish,” according to the children interviewed, “but unexpected for dogs, cats, and rabbits.” Similarly, different kinds of deaths mean different things to children.

“Children whose pets lived the extent of their potential lifetimes — or beyond — expressed acceptance upon their deaths,” Russell says.

The children also suggested that euthanasia “was the moral thing to do when a pet is suffering.” Conversely, children whose pets died unexpectedly “described it as emotionally and morally unfair, and had a much more difficult time reconciling the loss.”

In all instances, family and friends helped the children cope with the loss of their beloved pets through discussions and family rituals. Although, Russell discovered ambivalence about whether a new pet would lessen their grief.

“There were those who felt it would be wrong to move on to a new pet because they had to honor their relationships with the deceased one.”

Several children, however, “explicitly linked getting a new pet with feeling better,” Russell said. “They explained it as an opportunity to start over and suggested that replacing a companion animal is more about beginning a new relationship than erasing memories of an old one.”

Neville summarized it best, Russell concludes, when he said, “Sometimes death is tragic, like when a cat is run over by a car. But ultimately, death is part of life and life does go on.”

Source: Canisius College/Newswise

Pet Ownership Offers Emotional Life Skills to Children

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2016). Pet Ownership Offers Emotional Life Skills to Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 21, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2016/10/20/pet-ownership-offers-emotional-life-skills-to-children/111402.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 20 Oct 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 20 Oct 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.