Researchers have found that the death of a family pet can trigger a sense of grief in children that is profound and prolonged, and can potentially lead to subsequent mental health issues.
The study, published in the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, found that the strong emotional attachment of youngsters to pets might result in measurable psychological distress.
According to the researchers, it can serve as an indicator of depression in children and adolescents for as long as three years or more after the loss of a beloved 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," said study author Katherine Crawford from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in the US.
"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," Crawford added.
The researchers reported, the bonds that children form with pets can resemble secure human relationships in terms of providing affection, protection and reassurance.
Previous studies have shown that children often turn to pets for comfort and to voice their fears and emotional experiences.
While the increased empathy, self-esteem and social competence that often flow from this interaction is clearly beneficial, the downside is the exposure of children to the death of a pet occurs with 63 percent of children with pets during their first seven years of life.
Their analysis is based on a sample of 6260 children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), in Bristol, England.
This population-based sample is replete with data collected from mothers and children that enabled researchers to track the experience of pet ownership and pet loss from a child's early age up to eight years.
"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," said researcher Erin Dunn.
"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," Dunn noted.