Back to School: Leaving your Pet Behind

No doubt about it,- summer’s never long enough. There is never enough time to play at the seashore, never enough ball games or bicycle trips, never enough time off from work. Some plans make it difficult to include our pets, so parts of the summer might include a stay at a boarding kennels or even pet-sitters, allowing us to get away. For the most part, pet owners, especially those with children, try to involve their pets in as much summertime fun as possible.

By the time fall arrives, most pets have had the luxury of a bit more attention and interaction with their owners. Younger kids, off for the summer, have lots of extra time to enjoy their new kitten or puppy, perhaps acquired earlier in the spring. Older kids, home from school, get to renew their relationship with the pets they left behind with Mom and Dad. Dogs and cats alike may not have the same perception of time that we do, but the return of a loved family member is certainly a high point in a pet’s life.

When school begins, schedules change. The kids are gone most of the day and when they come home there’s so much homework! College students are away altogether. For working households, the pace on the job picks up, too. Your schedule may be more hectic and require you or your family to be away from home, however, your pet still faithfully waits for you with the same or even greater needs as before. They may have higher expectations after enjoying the luxury of your increased attention during the warmer months. The joy of your dog’s or cat’s greeting when you return home indicates the intensity of the void they feel when you depart.

Ideally, pet owners should begin to prepare their pets for inevitable separations before they happen. It is perfectly acceptable to leave your pets behind to pursue your own interests, as long as their basic needs for food, water, shelter and daily exercise are met. Gradually leave your young pet for longer and longer periods of time, but be sure to give them the attention they deserve when you return. Make a point of engaging in some pleasant form of interaction before you leave, so that your impending departure is associated with a ‘happy time’. Keep your returns calm and controlled and spend some quality time with your pet when you are home. School age children can set aside 15 minutes when they arrive home each day to play with or to brush their cat or dog, or to take the dog for a walk. This gives your pet one on one attention from your child and is also beneficial for your child, after a day confined behind a desk and chair.

Your pet may have been developing Separation Anxiety Syndrome for years. It can be present from the start in young pets, or emerge later in life. Older pets may find it more difficult to adjust to these seasonal absence, or they may have an underlying medical problem that is exacerbated by stressful change. It is not uncommon for the parents of school or college age kids to report that their pet seemed to become lethargic and even to stop eating when their kids first return to school. We should be aware that our pets anticipate impending departures by cues from our own activities and moods. Pet owners should make a special effort at this time of year to give their dog or cat a bit more attention to make this transition period an easier one for everyone!

© Stefanie Schwartz 2011