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Doctors and psychologists have long praised the positive effects that pet ownership can have on a child. A family dog or cat can teach your child empathy, responsibility, social skills, and the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships.
Yet, pet ownership has some potential downfalls, as well. Here are three potentially serious situations that often warrant the help of a child psychiatrist or counselor.
Death of the Family Pet
There is perhaps no situation more heart-wrenching than watching your child grieve the loss of a beloved pet. If your dog or cat is fatally ill and euthanasia is the kindest option, include your child in the decision and explain the reasons behind it. Young children in particular can have a difficult time understanding the rationale behind this move, so you must take the time to explain why this is the kindest option. Otherwise, you risk leaving your child confused and even resentful.
If your dog or cat died in an accident or of natural causes, be honest with your child about the events. Do not lie and say that the pet "ran away" or found another home; you need to be honest with your child.
When to Seek Counseling: It is natural for your child to feel sadness, loneliness, and emptiness when a beloved pet passes away. Yet, if your child is not gradually overcoming the sadness and your pet's death seems to be interfering with other aspects of your child's life, like schoolwork or behavior, consider scheduling an appointment with a child psychiatrist or counselor. A counselor can help your child manage grief and pinpoint if a more serious problem needs attention.
When Animals Attack
Children often do not realize how their actions affect family pets. If your child is prone to rough-housing or is still learning the importance of boundaries, your family pet likely receives the brunt of these youthful indiscretions. Your child may not understand that overzealous play can injure your family dog or cat, and your pet might respond with a stern warning snap, scratch, or bite. Similarly, if your child tries to pester a pet while the animal is eating or sleeping, your pet might remedy the situation with aggression.
Naturally, take your child to the family physician to make sure that any bites or scratches are free from infection. More serious bites might warrant a trip to the emergency room, as deep puncture wounds often need stitches. Hopefully, the relationship between your child and your pet will not be forever strained and your child will have learned a valuable lesson.
When to Seek Counseling: When the family dog or cat strikes out at your child, the experience can be traumatic. Even if the strike is justified and your child understands why your pet responded aggressively, your child might have lingering fear of the pet or other dogs and cats. If this seems to be the case, have your child discuss these fears with a professional. A counselor can help your child overcome these fears slowly and effectively.
The Animal as Victim
Many parents dismiss the severity of a child who is mean to animals. Parents either do not want to believe that their child is abusive, or trivialize the actions as a part of a childhood phase. Unfortunately, if a child is abusive towards your family pet or other living creatures, something more serious may be lurking behind your child's actions.
If your child has injured or even killed the family pet, ask your child to be honest about what happened. You can rule out potential problems if you discover that your child was simply too rough with the pet.
When to Seek Counseling: Do not take an abusive child's actions lightly. If your child is intentionally abusive towards your pet or other animals, schedule an appointment with a counselor (such as one from Comprehensive Behavioral Health Associates Inc). In many cases, the abuse will not stop with animals and can lead to future violent behaviors and criminal activities. Furthermore, abuse towards animals can indicate problems elsewhere in your child's life, like abuse, overexposure to violent situations, or bullying.