The mental health effects of pet death during childhood: is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?

Abstract

Pet ownership is common. Growing evidence suggests children form deep emotional attachments to their pets. Yet, little is known about children’s emotional reactions to a pet’s death. The goal of this study was to describe the relationship between experiences of pet death and risk of childhood psychopathology and determine if it was “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Data came from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a UK-based prospective birth cohort (n = 6260). Children were characterized based on their exposure to pet ownership and pet death from birth to age 7 (never loved; loved without loss; loved with loss). Psychopathology symptoms at age 8 were compared across groups using multivariable linear regression. Psychopathology symptoms were higher among children who had loved with loss compared to those who had loved without loss (β = 0.35, p = 0.013; 95% CI = 0.07, 0.63), even after adjustment for other adversities. This group effect was more pronounced in males than in females. There was no difference in psychopathology symptoms between children who had loved with loss and those who had never loved (β = 0.20, p = 0.31, 95% CI = −0.18–0.58). The developmental timing, recency, or accumulation of pet death was unassociated with psychopathology symptoms. Pet death may be traumatic for children and associated with subsequent mental health difficulties. Where childhood pet ownership and pet bereavement is concerned, Tennyson’s pronouncement may not apply to children’s grief responses: it may not be “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”.

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Acknowledgments

This publication is the work of the authors, each of whom serve as guarantors for the contents of this paper. This work was conducted with support from the National Institutes of Health Award K01MH102403 and R01MH113930. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. The authors thank Janine Cerutti for her assistance in preparing this manuscript for publication.

Funding

We are extremely grateful to all the families who took part in this study, the midwives for their help in recruiting them, and the whole ALSPAC team, which includes interviewers, computer and laboratory technicians, clerical workers, research scientists, volunteers, managers, receptionists and nurses. The UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust (Grant ref: 102215/2/13/2) and the University of Bristol provide core support for ALSPAC. A comprehensive list of grants funding is available on the ALSPAC website (https://www.bristol.ac.uk/alspac/external/documents/grant-acknowledgements.pdf).

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Correspondence to Erin C. Dunn.

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Ethical approval for the study was obtained from the ALSPAC Ethics and Law Committee and the Local Research Ethics Committee. Informed consent for the use of data collected via questionnaires and clinics was obtained from participants following the recommendations of the ALSPAC Ethics and Law Committee at the time. More details are available on the ALSPAC website (www.bristol.ac.uk/alspac), including a fully searchable data dictionary.

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Crawford, K.M., Zhu, Y., Davis, K.A. et al. The mental health effects of pet death during childhood: is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-020-01594-5

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Keywords

  • Depressive disorders
  • Epidemiology
  • Cohort
  • Trauma
  • Risk assessment
  • Childhood
  • Experience
  • Pet
  • Death