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How Do You Explain a Pet’s Death to a Toddler?

Pet's Death

Unfortunately, we’re struggling with this very topic this week. 

Our Pet’s Death

A few months ago, Sophia showed interest in getting a pet fish. We decided to go with a beta fish, since they’re easy to take care of and we could let her start a routine of feeding it and taking care of something, a little responsibility for the two year old.  🙂  

She named her, she insisted the fish was a girl… Blue Fish. Yep, this little lady loves blue. 

So, Blue Fish joined our family back in September. Sometimes I ended up being the one to feed her, but Sophia actually really enjoyed her pet. 

Unfortunately, Blue Fish #1 didn’t make it past a few days. Before Sophia even noticed, we replaced with Blue Fish #2, simply because we didn’t know what to tell her. She never noticed the difference.

Sadly, though, this weekend I found Blue Fish not swimming. I was a bit sad and knew that Sophia would be too, even though she might not understand why. Rob and I talked about what we should tell her and really we didn’t know what to do. 

So, how do you explain a pet’s death to a toddler the right way?

Explaining a pet’s death to a toddler

So, the next day, I took Blue Fish out of the small aquarium and started cleaning it. Sophia wanted to know when I was going to put the blue rocks back in the tank. I quit what I was doing and sat down with her. 

I told her that sometimes people and animals miss their Mommies and Daddies and Blue Fish missed her family so she went back to visit them. She was so sad. She started to cry and said “But I miss my Blue Fish.” 

I was caught off guard. I thought by telling her a happier version, she would be ok, but she still missed her pet.

So, by trying to save her little feelings, I didn’t at all. So, after the fact I did some research, which is never a good idea – research should have been done beforehand, I know.

I found that I did it all wrong. Most experts agree that you should be completely honest {never do the switch-a-roo} and my whole story about Blue Fish visiting her family? That’s a No-No too.

So How Should I Have Explained Blue Fish’s Death to Sophia?

  1. Be Honest. Since she’s only 2.5, I should have explained it simply and to the point, with not too much information. I should have let her ask questions and answered them truthfully and honestly.
  2. Let her talk about her feelings. Explain that it’s ok to be sad or even mad.
  3. Let Sophia say Goodbye. Instead of trying to hide the fact that Blue Fish died, let her accept it and tell her fish Goodbye.
  4. Take a Break before getting another Fish. I immediately wanted to take her out and let her buy a new fish, but I think we’ll wait just a bit before that happens. 

I definitely think that since this pet was a fish, there wasn’t quite a bond that she might have had as if it was a dog or a cat, an animal that she interacts with a bit more. 

But saying that, just because Blue Fish was a fish, doesn’t discount Sophia’s feelings either.

This was a real learning experience for Rob and me. We now know how to deal with situations like this, although I hope they don’t happen often, and I feel better prepared for when they do arise. 

I didn’t go back and tell Sophia what really happened, but we will definitely use these points from now on.

I’d love to hear from you – How have you/will you explain a Pet’s Death to your Toddler?


Sunday 24th of January 2016

thanks for the tips. I can see this being a really good article to have read before our pet's pass away .

The Bearden Pack

Saturday 18th of April 2015

I haven't had to tell my 3 year about death, but I did about our dog running away. She was just under 2 years when it happened. When she see's the igloo, even now at 3, she say's "Juno ran away". We told her the truth. For us though, the idea of running away isn't really comprehensible. Luckily she really never cried, but talks about it a lot.


Sunday 15th of September 2013

We just dealt with this subject this weekend. Our daughter already knew that Pepik (one of our tortoises) was very sick...  I explained to her that he was no longer with us (she pointed to him & said "he's right there"), since she loves all thing doctor, at the moment, I told her his heart is no longer pumping.  I was TRYING to avoid the words dead and/or didn't work.  He's dead, I told her.  We took him out and Daddy dug a hole while I continued to TRY to get her to understand that this was not temporary...  When we went to place him in the hole, she suddenly got very concerned about his comfort level in his "new hole home" we lined it with some pet hay (Timothy, not that it matters).  We snuggled him in and went to fill the hole...nope!  He would get dirty!!!  So we put another layer of hay to keep the dirt off of his shell.  lol  After all the production, I asked if she was okay and she said "Yeah" and wandered off to play.  :\  I was actually disappointed it wasn't a bigger deal.  I suppose that's wrong...especially considering he was actually MY pet.  Now.....I just have to get her to understand that he will NOT grow into a "turtle tree" next summer!  *sigh*


Tuesday 24th of September 2013

Oh, I'm so sorry that you had to deal with this, Diane. It's certainly a hard subject and even harder when things don't go as you think they might. And a Turtle Tree - super cute. ;)


Tuesday 29th of January 2013

I think I was more upset when our fish died then my kids were. Great tips!

Heather M

Sunday 27th of January 2013

I think you did it perfectly! My daughter was old enough when we got her a fish. She was 4 and already knew about death. Her beta lived for about 8 months. She tortured it, she always put paper and such in his tank. I'm considering getting another Beta but putting it on our kitchen counter instead of her room this time. We had a 47 gallon fish tank that we just got rid of a few months ago because the maintenance was a lot. We had a dog die when she was just shy of 2, but she never even asked about it. We had another dog at the time and I don't even think she really noticed.

I think you explained everything just right to your daughter though. Be blunt and to the point and let her talk about her feelings. Loss is normal and we all grieve differently, so it's important to let them express their thoughts! Maybe get her a new fish to help her get over it, but explain that this one will eventually die off as well. Or get a couple hermit crabs, those things live FOR.EVER!