We tend to be a pet heavy household. At one point, we had two dogs and two cats; when they started passing on, we started getting pet rats, which in my opinion are the perfect pet for kids, despite their horrible PR problem (those who don’t flinch at the word “rat” are few and far between). Here is why I love pet rats:

  1. Rats are smart and cute. They learn their names, and get attached to the kids.

  2. Their cage doesn’t smell until you go a very long time without cleaning it, and they require no care other than holding them and feeding regularly.

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  3. They are a source of real responsibility that builds confidence and social skills. Kids can take care of their rats entirely themselves. My 8 and 10 year old have been cleaning the rat cage without assistance for a couple of years. I love watching them take on this responsibility, negotiating the task between the two of them.

  4. Pets are a source of play and empathy, two foundational skills for happiness. They also foster positive sibling relationships: my kids play with the rats together, giggling and generally sounding like they are caring for something. Listening in, there are lots of “awww, Fiona, look, she’s licking me,” and baby-voiced “do you want a sunflower seed? There you go…” – the voices of empathetic and loving care-givers.

Here is what I don’t like about pet rats: they die. Quickly. They only live 2-3 years; they develop big tumors and get frail right out of their adolescence, lose their balance, and then suddenly (almost certainly when we are away for the weekend), they kick the bucket.

This morning, we woke up to find blood all over our rat Despereaux’s cage. She is a little more than two years old, and her sister passed away this summer. The kids know she is sick, and that “the end is near,” as Fiona told Molly at breakfast, with a quivering lip.

Here are some ways we can help kids when an animal is dying:

  1. Tell the truth about what is happening. When our first rat got a tumor and my daughter discovered it and started to freak out, I suggested that maybe it was a bee sting so she would calm down. That was a stupid thing to say, truly. Kids know what is going on, and when we lie to them about it, we convey the message that we don’t want to deal with their hard feelings.

  2. Help them understand that it is a waste of our limited time left with our pet to grieve as though they are already dead. Knowing that the end is near is sad, of course, and it is important to accept those feelings—but not dwell on them. Feeling thankful for the time we still have together can be bittersweet: the end can intensify feelings of love, compassion, nurturance, and gratitude.

  3. Give them a chance to say good-bye. Kids need closure as much as we do. Putting a dog down while they are at school, and then vaguely telling them that their pet is in the hospital when they get home, as a friend of mine recently did, deprives kids of closure and mourning. It also makes for a lot of awkward conversations until the truth comes out. See #1, above.

  4. If you need to euthanize a pet, make it clear that the such a decision is an adult one that you are making. You can find out how they feel about it, and even what they would do, but be very clear that the decision is your responsibility.

  5. Help kids grieve. Share your sadness, but also, share happy memories—encourage them to draw pictures, post photographs, or even write poems or letters about their pet. Help them create a memorial service. And let them be sad, even if you find it exhausting. (See this post about dealing with difficult feelings.)

In pets, and in the death of pets, we find profound life lessons. “Kids cannot escape the overpowering reality of life and death any more than adults can,” Jon Katz writes in his new book Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die. I am sad that Despereaux is dying because my kids are sad. But Katz reminds us, paraphrasing Aristotle, that “to truly know how to love something, you have to lose something.” In that way, every animal we lose is a gift.

When kids to experience the loss of a pet, they learn that they can tolerate sadness and grief. Death is important, as Katz says in this moving video; it defines life.


© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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