Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Pets Get the Back-to-School Blues, Too!

Pet Column for the week of August 3, 2009

Related information:

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Source - Kandi Norrell, DVM
As the dog days of summer come to a close, teenagers will be heading off to college and youngsters will be catching the bus each morning for school. Pet owners themselves may also have to return to working eight hours a day, leaving a lonely dog or cat at home who is confused by the changing household dynamics.

Dr. Kandi Norrell is a clinical assistant professor and head of the new primary care department, the "community practice," at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. She says, "it is important for pet owners to realize that it is not unusual for cats and dogs to go through a funk when everyone heads back to school."

The disruption in routine can be more traumatic for some pets versus others. For example, if you own a dog that is a herding breed, the change in pace may be particularly difficult. These breeds tend to think of the children in the house as their "flock" to take care of leaving them feeling lost or bored during their absence.

Some of the signs your dog may show if they are having a difficult time acclimating include separation anxiety, destructive behavior, inactivity, depression, and even stress-induced diarrhea. Though dogs are sometimes easier to read, cats may display more subtle signs. "Some of the signs of emotional depression in cats include lethargy (sleeping more than usual), changes in vocalization (more or less dependent on the cat), and occasionally behavioral issues like spraying or inappropriate elimination outside the litter box," notes Dr. Norrell.

To try to prevent your dog or cat from experiencing a rough transition period between the summer and fall, there are a few steps you can implement. Most importantly, "start sooner rather than later," stresses Dr. Norrell. Don't wait until the day your child goes off to college to start a new routine.

Here are a few tips to prevent "the back to school blues:"

  • Maintain your pet's normal routine as much as possible. Try to avoid changing the times that it is "let out" and meal times.
  • Increase physical activity--a laser light for your cat to chase and a long walk for your dog may give them a natural "feel good" endorphin release.
  • Leave a worn t-shirt or article of clothing out for your pet to smell.
  • Explore options for doggy day care centers in your area.
  • Reduce separation anxiety by providing positive association with your absence (treats/toys offered when you leave), and avoid making a big deal out of your arrival after returning home (it's a "normal" thing).
  • Buy a new toy your pet can play with while you are gone. Toys designed to challenge your pet will occupy his/her time. You can find specifically designed toys at major retailers such as those that require "working" for a treat.

  • On a final note, some owners consider getting another animal as a companion for the one left at home. "Owners need to think about what is best for their dog or cat, rather than their guilt of leaving a pet home alone," notes Dr. Norrell. Adding a pet into a household may cause more stress than benefit depending on the family and the current pet. If you do decide to add another animal to your household, it is important to plan ahead and make sure time permits for acclimation of the new pet to the household and for the current pet to accept and bond with its new pal BEFORE they are expected to make adjustments to being left alone.

    For more information on keeping your pet healthy and happy during the back to school transition please contact your local veterinarian or the primary care clinic at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital at 217-333-5300.