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 from a window.)

“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.

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