Chocolate Labrador Resting on a Bed
Philip Harvey  /  Corbis stock
It’s not unusual for dogs — and sometimes cats — to go into a funk when the kids go back to school in the fall or off to college for the first time.
By contributor
updated 9/17/2007 10:00:17 AM ET 2007-09-17T14:00:17

Daniel and Luke were inseparable. The best friends spent the summer outdoors, playing ball and tag, and going inside for a snack from Daniel's mom when they got hot and hungry. But when Daniel, now 11, started back to school a couple years ago, Luke had to stay behind.

“That puppy was depressed!” says Daniel’s mother, Ginny Guidry, of Spring Valley, Calif. “He was only 4 months old when Daniel first went back to school. At first he just laid around, but after he figured out the program — Daniel’s leave time and return time — he seemed to perk up.”

It’s not unusual for dogs — and sometimes cats — to go into a funk when the kids go back to school in the fall or off to college for the first time. They may even mope around when your work schedule changes.

When we got Darcy as a puppy, my husband, Jerry, and I were working at home all the time, so she was used to plenty of attention from both of us. A few months later, Jerry began traveling extensively for work and Darcy’s life was turned upside down. Jerry would leave in the morning and she’d lie at the top of the stairs for hours, waiting for him to come back.

She followed her to school one day...
Some dogs take their unhappiness with separation to extremes. Our Old English Sheepdog, Sugar, used to jump our stucco wall and follow me to school when I was in the sixth grade. She’d show up at the classroom door and refuse to leave until my mother came to get her. That’s not an unusual problem with protective dogs such as the herding breeds, who view kids as part of their “flock.”

Cats can be quite emotionally attached to caregivers, too, and become distressed when their normal routine is interrupted.

“Part of that emotional attachment is a behavioral expectation that the two are going to do something predictable,” says John C. Wright, an animal behaviorist and professor of psychology at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. “It’s important to the cat on a daily basis. So you have a disruption in daily routine when someone leaves for school, a disruption in the emotional security the cat has, and that can result in both emotional and behavioral depression.”

With emotional depression, the cat appears to be distraught and may vocalize more than usual, Wright says. Signs of behavioral depression range from lethargy — the cat tends to sleep longer, especially during those times when it’s used to interacting with the person who’s gone — to hyperactivity.

Beating the blues
What’s the cure for depressed dogs and cats?

Lots of exercise can help dogs, says animal behaviorist Mary Lee Nitschke, a professor of psychology at Linfield College in Portland, Ore.

“The more physical exercise, the more endorphin release you can provide, and that’s all good,” she says, referring to feel-good chemicals in the brain.

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It’s also important to remember that your dog feeds on your own emotional state. If you’re depressed about your child going off to college, your dog will sense that.

“For many people, when a kid goes off to college, the whole household is kind of depressed,” Nitschke says. “It’s a change in status in people’s lives, and everybody reacts to that at some level.”

Getting out and walking your lonesome dog is good therapy for both of you. If you face the prospect of a child going off to college or camp or basic training, start preparing your dog sooner rather than later, especially if your child and dog share a particularly close bond.

“If the kid going off to school was the major source of the dog’s playtime, then when you take that out of the environment, there’s going to be what seems like a deficit to the dog,” Nitschke says. “I would increase the physically active interactions with the dog. It’s not a bad idea to get the dog used to being walked or played with by other members of the household before the child goes off to college or back to school.”

Soothing scents
You also can provide comfort by having the child or adult who’s going away leave behind a worn piece of clothing such as a T-shirt. Having the scent of his favorite person around will help your dog relax.

Similar techniques work with cats. Have another member of the family try to approximate their routine, Wright says, including feeding the cat at the same time, playing with the cat at the same time and in the same ways, and letting the cat sleep with someone else if it was used to sleeping in the bed of its favorite person.

Ultimately, the best remedy is time.

Luke moped around for a while, then got used to Daniel’s schedule. What he likes best of all, Guidry says, is going with her in the afternoon when she picks Daniel up at school.

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

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