Animal Wise: Back-to-school blues

Longing - Photo by Anne Worner on Trendhype : CC BY-SA

“Longing” (Photo by Anne Worner on Trendhype / CC BY-SA)

The school buses rumble through the neighborhood, marking a change in routine for kids, parents, and drivers. As fleeting as it seems, summer vacation is just long enough to break the sleeping, waking, coming, and going habits of the school year. This shift back to academic-year reality affects our animal companions, too.

My household has no school bus riders, but it does contain one college professor who has been home all summer. In preparation for classes starting this week, she began to spend more time on campus. On Wednesday, when she wasn’t home by 4:30 p.m., the dog and the older of our two cats parked themselves by the garage door and waited. (The younger cat, who hasn’t lost her street smarts, apparently decided to play it cool and take in some chipmunk theater.)

“She’ll be home soon,” I told the two worriers. “She’s back at work. It’s that time of year.” Indeed, she was home within half an hour, and the next day they weren’t as concerned.

Animals who have enjoyed daytime human company all summer, and perhaps more outings to dog parks and pet-friendly cafes, may suddenly find themselves alone for hours at a time. The fact that it’s the same routine as last spring or last year may not register in the stress of the present moment … and the present moment is where our animal friends are experts at dwelling.

They may be sad. They may be anxious. They may be bored. They may be all of the above. You may be looking at a furniture-scratching, throw-pillow-chewing, garbage-raiding, howling start to the school year. Animals thrive on routine (granted, some do more than others), so any changes to it may be met with resistance … or at least some sad looks as you’re heading out the door. Even cats who deny any interest in human affairs are not above a reproachful gaze.

So now that school is in, what can you do to ease the transition? Here are some suggestions from the ASPCA and my own experience:

• Give the animals a treat every time you leave the house so they associate your departure with something pleasant.

• Stuff the treats in a rubber toy such as a Kong to give them something to work on.

• Leave a radio on low volume; I like NPR for its calm voices and classical music, but if there is a particular kind of music your animal companion is used to or seems to like, go with that.

• Tell them where you’re going and when you expect someone will be home.  They understand more than you think.

• Touch base during the day. You don’t even need a phone. Calmly bring your animal to mind, silently tell him you love him, and remind him of when you (or someone else in the household) will be home. Again — they get it.

• Keep school backpacks closed and/or away from curious noses. You don’t want your animal companions to get into something harmful, and even if the dog actually does eat your son’s homework, no teacher will believe it.

Here’s to a great year of learning with the animals in our lives.

African violet victories

Geri's AV with ribbons at fair

I grew this African violet from a leaf cutting three years ago as part of an anxiety-inducing repotting operation. 

There was a time when I avoided even looking at the African violets I passed in grocery and home improvement stores. Experience told me I did not have whatever knack, touch, or mojo was required to care for them. Enough heartbreak, I vowed.

Then my dear spouse Kathy presented me with an absolutely beautiful African violet from McNamara Florist (location formerly known as Sand Point), one of my favorite nurseries here in Fort Wayne. It thrived for two years. I was amazed.

Then I noticed it was looking a bit gangly and the lower leaves were drooping. The need to repot was a sign of success … but it was also another opportunity to screw up.

I consulted fellow Master Gardeners. I studied the African Violet Society of America‘s website. Then I gathered my courage, tools, and potting medium, and performed the transplant.

After some transitory drooping, the patient pulled through like a champ and bloomed again. I hadn’t killed it! What’s more, a few of the cuttings I’d rooted from the leaves removed from the parent plant became brand new little African violet plants.

I gave some of the offspring as gifts, letting my intuition tell me which plant needed to go to what person. Or you might say I let the plants tell me.

The baby African violet that went to my friend Geri knew what it was doing. Under her care, it grew many more lush green leaves, bloomed abundantly, and needed a new pot after about a year. Just like its mum, it took the transplant well.

Summer arrived, and Kathy suggested Geri and I enter our brilliant young charge in the Allen County 4-H Fair. Geri and I are city girls. 4-H and county fairs have not been part of our experience, by and large. But what the heck, we figured. Geri filled out the form and entered the African violet in the adult House Plants: Propagated Potted Plant category.

The plant won Best of Show.

So if you think you don’t have African violet mojo, try the following:

  1. Get a plant from a good source, such as a reputable local nursery.
  2. Water weekly with a weak African violet fertilizer solution (weekly, weakly).
  3. Repot when needed, and don’t panic if it droops afterward. Give it time to recover.
  4. Consult sources such as the AVSA or your local Master Gardeners for information and support.

You just never know what you can accomplish with smart sourcing, well-researched information, and a little help from your friends.