How to Deal with a Child Who Accidentally Caused a Pet's Death

Updated on May 02, 2018
C.L. asks from Yuba City, CA
18 answers

Hi Everyone,
I saw a posting about this several months ago but I can't seem to find it. Last weekend my four-year-old daughter accidentally squeezed her pet rat to death. It was still a baby. I know that supervision is the answer for future contact with the rest of our pets, but I want to know how to deal with the fact that she actually killed something, even though it was (I hope) an accident. She knew something was wrong when she locked herself in the bathroom with it. My husband dealt with it by yelling at her and demanding he tell her what she had done. I, on the other hand, held her on my lap and told her I understood it was an accident and that she didn't mean to hurt her baby. Did I do the right thing? I don't believe that taking all her other pets away from her is the solution.

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So What Happened?

Thanks to everyone for their advice and sympathy. My husband has since made peace with my daughter and the three of us have talked about what happened and that it was an accident and that she needs to be gentle from now on. And my husband and I now supervise more closely when she's around the other animals.

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answers from Dallas on

I think you should do some internet searching to find professionals who may have articles or pamphlets on this subject. This could be a big deal emotionally.
good luck.

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answers from San Francisco on

Hello C.,
What a learning experiance for you all. I actually understand that your husband reacted out of fear, guilt, concern for what he couldn't fix and that you reacted out of protection and taking the responsibility away from the child. There is a middle ground between the 2.
We have 5 children and have raised several more. I have seen children since age 6 months be around animals esp birds and dogs that both bite back if mistreated and we have always supervised them. I know that the responsibility is ultimately on you as parents for teaching the child and protecting the animal. Children need to understand and (believe me with 3 4year olds here right now playing they are old enough to understand) that they are bigger, stronger and smarter than the animal. It is fine for a child to feel bad and have guilt about causing harm- when they don't we take from them apart of learning and growing up. What isn't good is the guilt that goes with it when stressed that they murdered something. We have one child that had a beloved family Parrot get out of the cage outside and was killed-- it took him weeks to get past it becaue he needed to deal withthe grief and responsibility but we helped him see we didn't resent him for it, nor loved him less because of it and yes everyone was hurting because of a mistake made. He learned to be kinder and more compassionet in many areas of his life as he grew up.
I hope that you will find the middle ground between your 2 styles of handling things becasue this is only the start of many more experiances in parenthood, with all its many twists and turns but I promise you that it will be all worth it. Nana Glenda

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answers from San Francisco on

First of all, no four year old is responsible enough to take care of another living thing. That's a given. So, it kinda annoys me when people so she's not ready, well duh!

So, the first thing is, she needs to know that she's not a murdering monster. Taking away her pets will tell her just that. Second thing is, supervised time with the pets means playing with pets WITH her. Pet rats aren't like cats or dogs where you can turn around and do some dishes, ya know?

Be sure that your husband is with you on this. You can do all the right things but if he were to continue to yell at her or treat her harshly it'll destroy all of your positive efforts.

Also, talking to a child psychologist, with your husband, is highly recommended. It may help your husband manage the situation better.



answers from Sacramento on

I would get her another rat and try again, this time watching her like a hawk. If it was truly and accident, it won't happen again and this is a good time to teach learning from your accidents.



answers from Redding on

Dear C.,
This is a sad situation, but you all can get through it.
A lot of kids don't understand that animals are not toys. Animals are living beings that breathe and get hungry, feel pain, and need to be loved, protected and cared for. Your daughter most likely, hopefully, didn't know her own strength, but hopefully, she does now.
I don't think you should lie to her. I don't think you should make your husband apoligize for yelling. I think you should both talk to her about why we have to be gentle with things smaller than we are. That goes for animals, babies, etc. Daddy didn't mean to yell, he still loves her, but he felt sad.
You say you have other pets. I don't know what kind they are, but I would certainly make sure she does not have any unsupervised contact with them whatsoever. It's not a punishment, but it will alleviate this from happening again. You hold the animal, allowing her only to pet it until you can be sure she understands how fragile they are. And I wouldn't rush it. Allow her to help with giving food and water and watch you clean and care for the pet, but no holding it solo without you right there. In the case of a baby rat, she doesn't need to hold it anyway. At the most, you should have her sit still and let it walk on her, HANDS OFF. If it tickles her, she can't leave it alone, or she doesn't like it on her, then that's not the kind of pet for her to have. There's nothing wrong with that, it just means it's not the right fit.
My son was born into a house with birds. I've had birds all my life. I had one bird that wanted nothing to do with anybody and he even tried to bite me just reaching in to give him food and water. I told my son a million times that was the bird he had to leave alone because it would hurt him. I could have fainted dead away the day my son said, "Shush Mommy. Come here." He had that damn bird perched on his finger. He was 3 years old and I have pictures of that bird on his head, on his shoulder, my son laying on this tummy watching Little Bear in his Super Man undies, with that bird on him. It eventually died of old age, but that bird never did love anyone else.
Which is another issue...if we have pets to enrich our lives and the lives of our children, we also must ultimately deal with the fact that they pass away. Certain things, like fish, hamsters, hermit crabs, don't tend to live very long under the best of circumstances, so we need to be prepared for explaining it to our kids. We still need to care for the things that depend on us and teach our children empathy regardless of how short their life span may be because all life is precious. Your daughter doesn't need guilt or to be branded a killer, but she DOES need to understand that choking, squishing, smothering, smashing something alive will cause it not to be alive anymore. This is what happens when you do that. Until she can be gentle and understand, as the parent, you need to make sure this can't happen again. It probably won't if you don't go overboard making it a trivial thing to spare her feelings. These are things that give us opportunities to talk about life lessons and move forward. That's what families do.

After this, if she clearly isn't ready for pets in the house, you know what you need to do. Wait until she's older so accidents can't happen anymore.

Best wishes.



answers from Sacramento on

I don't think taking her pets away is the answer. She's only 4 and doesn't really understand how delicate creatures are (I'm sure she understands a little more now though). I would just continue to reassure her that you understand that it was an accident, and just keep an eye on her with her other pets so that you can remind her to be gentle with the animals.



answers from San Francisco on

C., your response was perfect and will keep the lines of communication with your daughter open. Your husband, shall we say, was not the best. Your daughter felt guilty and knew she would get in trouble which is why she locked herself in the bathroom. Your husband did not help her mental state and will only serve to make what she is feeling worse.

You are right that taking all the pets away is not the solution, it will only compound her feeings of guilt and shame, undermine her confidence, and drive home the fact that you don't feel she can be trusted. For someone so young, it comes back to supervision. At around 6 or 7 can you begin to ease up and not have to constantly watch her.



answers from San Francisco on

This is one of those cases where you need to lie. I woud tell her that the animal was sick, and that's why we need to care for our pets carefully, because sometimes they are sick, and need extra help. Then gert Dad to show her what "talking care of" means, by gently getting her to pick up the rat (he need to show her that he can be gentle as well as being able to yell).

She does not need the burden of causing a death, who knows where that will take her.

Hope tha thelps.

regards, P.



answers from Modesto on

Having a pet is a huge responsibility.....and unfortunately, she is not ready. She doesn't seem to understand "gentle" yet, so it is probably best to always supervise her around others animals and babies for awhile :o)

When our Dog accidentally kid the classroom baby chick during our "turn" at babysitting, my 6 yr old felt terrible and responsible when my grandmother let our dog in. Yes, I too let him sit on my lap crying.

I think you did the right thing, as I'm sure your daughter didn't mean to hurt her baby. As difficult as it is, just love her. It will take about 2 weeks for her to recover from this emotionally.

It would be nice if your husband can calmly talk to her and apologize for over-reacting, he can explain that he was just scared. He doesn't want his daughter to be afraid of him, so it would be a great follow-thru for her.

Unfortunately, these are just parts of life happenings and we try to do the best we can in the moments.

Everything will go back to "normal" soon, with the sad memory, of course.

~N. :o)



answers from San Francisco on

Oh, your poor, poor sweet little girl. I'm so sorry to hear that happened! I think you did EXACTLY the right thing, and I would keep talking with her about it. She must be so upset, I know I would be!

How is she coping? If she is upset, maybe you can get your husband to apologize to her and tell her he's sorry he reacted so strongly, and that he knows it was an accident. I would have strangled my husband if he had reacted that way... she doesn't need any more guilt, I'm sure!

Over the holidays we were driving at night and we hit an opossum. My daughter (who is 2 yrs. old) talked about it for days, but said that, "Daddy squished the banana in the road." I think she was trying to diminish the awfulness of squishing the poor little creature.

Anyway, hang in there! Hope everyone comes out of this okay! :)



answers from San Francisco on

Hi C. L,

She is very young and did not know what happen. Children naturally hold things to tight as they do when they play with their toys. They have to be taught how to be gentle and common sense. Do not be mad at her. Let her know she has to be gentle with her babies. Show her how to be gentle so it does not happen again.

Accidents do happen but do not punish her for the accident.

She will learn.

Have a good day.

N. Marie



answers from San Francisco on

You did the right thing, not your husband.

Keep it up, good job.



answers from Houston on

Of course you did the right thing. You know that it was an accident. What was she doing with her pet rat?



answers from Sacramento on

I understand your plight. And yes, I would definitely supervise her contact with all other pets in the future. Accidents like this can happen with small children and small pets. I would say somewhere in between what you both did is a good answer. Letting her know she is safe to tell you what happened and letting her know what she did was wrong. Just keep an eye on her. Hopefully it was just that she didn't know her own strength or what she could do to a small pet. Like I said, I would definitely monitor all contact with all pets from here on out. Good luck and I'm sure you will get other great advice from the other mamas on here!



answers from Boise on

Hopefully you can convince your husband to have a talk with her. Maybe now that he has had time to reflect, he can apologise and tell her his emotions were off base.And he can calmly tell her how fragile animals are.

I had to take away a pet rabbit from my 5 year old when I warned her repeatedly, she was hurting the animal. I heard the rabbit squealing like a stuck pig. She had tied a rope to its neck and was try to walk it like a dog.

We got her an animal later, when she was around 9, and old enough not only to treat it properly but to care for it completely, messes,feeding and all.



answers from San Francisco on

Yes, you did the right thing in reaction to what happened.
Four year olds can't understand life and death, and there is not a clear line between fantasy and reality. She didn't understand what she was doing. (And by the way, for this reason, 4 is TOO YOUNG to own pets herself)
Don't think too badly of your husband for yelling, it probably just means that she will remember what happened and think about it---and that's a good thing.

I feel compelled to share the awful story of what happened with someone else's pet gerbil: a mother rat had babies, and one day the mother was found to have eaten the babies---the cage was found to contain only the mother, and a bloody, gruesome mess. This is not something you want a child to see, obviously! That would be much more traumatic than daddy yelling, for sure.
But I am not against pet rats...I had one in middle school and it was a good pet, though it didn't live long (they get tumors from inbreeding).



answers from Sacramento on

First of all, what was your husband thinking by yelling at her... that instills a lot of negative in any situation.

She is 4 years old and I'm sure the concept of death really has no meaning to her. It obviously was an accident and doing what you did to handle the situation was the right thing.

Taking her pets away from her is not the solution. The solution is to have her well supervised while she plays with the pets and being explained to her that she needs to be easy with them. She will learn by example.



answers from San Francisco on

Compassion. That's the word that comes to mind when I think of your daughter.

You don't want her to have to harden her heart against you or your husband, but if you punish her or force her to talk about it, she might have to in order to deal with the pain. She is probably already in pain. Pain because she lost her pet. Pain because she did something that caused a separation between her and her parents. Pain because this event is still looming over her home.

Can you go soft with her? Just welcome her into your arms and see what happens? Maybe she will talk about it. Maybe she won't. You don't have to judge what she did or what she says. You don't have to evaluate it and 'take action.' You just have to know that you (YOU!) are her Garden of Eden, and don't cast her out. She's a baby.

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