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Back to School and the Family Pet!

Updated: Feb 19, 2022


For many families, this time of year comes with big changes. Daily routines of wake-up, bedtime, and meals may alter significantly. Downtime for younger kids decreases as schedules often become overloaded with clubs, sports, events, and meetings. On the other end of the spectrum, college kids who spent so much time at home this summer suddenly disappear like a ripped off bandaid. Add in the rush to gather all the needed supplies, getting everything in place, finishing up family vacations and projects. Oh, plus there's that pesky little deadly pandemic that's going on. Some kids don't know if they're going back to school, some are only going for part of the semester, others will be home-schooled. Don't even get me started on the masks! I get it. My niece is headed off to college in a week and I am freaking a little bit (ok a lot). This entire situation is so stressful for everyone - including the family pet. So I thought I'd share some ideas for helping make things a little better. Here, I will focus primarily on the kids who will be leaving for school, whether it be college or preschool or anything in between.

The humans all understand what's going on, but the pet has no clue what is happening or why and some become really stressed out. Pets can be like spongy mirrors when it comes to household stress: they absorb a lot of it while also reflecting it back. While many are incredibly resilient, others are very sensitive.

The family doesn't necessarily have to be emotionally stressed. In fact, they may be calm. Simply the change in activity and scheduling can be enough to rock a pet's world. Pets become accustomed to habits like spending a lot of time with their families, others have grown to love adventures and special trips or events. Then one day, there is a flurry of excitement and the humans are gone. By being aware that this may be a difficult adjustment for pets and planning in advance, families can help reduce feelings of anxiety, confusion, or just plain loneliness and potentially avoid unforeseen behavior problems. Some pets may develop undesirable behaviors such as accidents in the house, destructive chewing, or a general lack of manners. Others may become depressed, clingy, or lose their appetite. Following are a few suggestions to help make things a little bit easier for the family pet(s).

Integrate gradual changes into your schedule and routine early. Sudden, significant changes can really upset a pet and cause problems. The child may be sad to be leaving the pet and want to spend every second together, but this can often magnify the pet's distress when that time comes. This may mean spending less quantity of time with the family pet but more quality of time.

Pet-proof the house before leaving pets alone the first day – even if your pet was fine while being alone all summer, it’s better to be safe than sorry! If your dog barks excessively at strangers or other dogs out the window, try placing frosted film to keep them calmer. If they can't see, they bark less! Look for adhesive-free film to make your life easier.

Consider restricting access to the entire house by closing doors, using baby-gates, or crating. Having less space to wander in often helps to reduce stress. If your pet used to be crate trained, start having them spend short periods of time in their crate before school time comes. However, don't just toss them in the crate and leave! Gradually increase how much time they spend alone and keep en eye out for signs of separation-related distress. Sudden isolation can create on-going issues.

Consider leaving the radio or TV on to keep your pet company or to mask noises outside the house that may cause anxiety. Classical and reggae music or music specifically for cats or dogs is a great idea, while programming that may have agitating sounds should be avoided (ex: knocking, doorbells, dogs barking, etc.).

Provide mental and physical exercise especially before the last person leaves every day. Interactive toys that consume a bit of time as well as mental energy can be helpful. Kong’s filled with frozen snacks are fun and long-lasting, or a toy that releases treats or breakfast such as, Kong Wobbler or Kibble Nibble or Eggzerciser are great examples. Provide afternoon breaks for young, ill, or elderly dogs by going home during lunch, hiring a pet walker, or getting the help of a trusted friend or neighbor. For many pets, accidents in the house can be distressing. Ensure weekly energy outlets through walks, playtime, at-home training time, or even enrolling a new training class such as nose work.

Update identification if your pet is the kind that might slip out the door in the morning confusion especially during the first few days. Some pets may even escape when they are bored or anxious. Check that ID tags have current phone numbers and microchips are active with accurate information to help improve their chances of safely getting home.

Family meetings are great times to review that play and remind everyone to make an effort to help pets adjust. If you see any questionable behaviors now or if concerning behaviors start to develop later, don't wait! They will not resolve themselves and the longer they continue, the harder they can be to address. Reach out to an experienced professional who utilizes positive, reward-based techniques for assistance right away. You may even want to consult with a professional to help you come up with plan of action for really sensitive or anxious pets sooner. Trust me, start the process now. You'll thank me later.

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