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Q&A: Helping your pet beat the back-to-school blues

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After a summer full of family fun, the kids are back in school and families are focusing on school, work, and after-school activities. And that means many pets have a lot more free time on their paws. According to a survey by Pet360, 20 percent of pet owners with school-aged children said their pets showed signs of anxiety or depression when the family began their school-year routine. Boston.com Pets talked with Kim Melanson, behavior counselor and certified pet dog trainer for the Animal Rescue League of Boston, about how to recognize if your pet has the back-to-school blues, what to do about it, and when you should see a professional.

Boston.com Pets: How do you know if your pet has the back-to-school blues?

Melanson: If he’s showing any kind of anxiety when you leave, like getting excited, panting, pacing, and whining. Also when he’s left at home, is he being destructive, chewing anything, scratching?

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Boston.com Pets: What should you do to help your pet?

Melanson: Try to keep the schedule somewhat similar in the summer – take him out at the same time in the morning and at night. Do fun things, but when you’re home try to keep it the same. I know everyone gets rushed, but try to make sure they are getting their exercise before everyone leaves the house to make sure they’re tired in the morning. Have your kids exercise or have some fun with the dog every day. Try to leave them with a nice chew toy or food toy, like a Kong. Those can be given as you leave and they’ll have something to do for a while while you’re gone. Food puzzles or toys or safe chews.

Boston.com Pets: What’s a food puzzle?

Melanson: There’s one called Kibble Nibble where you put a bunch of food in a ball and there are two little holes at the end of the ball so they have to kick it around with their nose or paws and, as it moves, the kibble falls out. So it’s really fun. Not only are they getting a treat, but they are using their brain to get the treat.

Boston.com Pets: Should you confine your pet to a certain area of the house?

Melanson: Depending on the dog, confinement can help. Many dogs feel safe in their crates so if they have been using their crate, keep using it. You can use smaller areas like kitchens so they aren’t loose in the house. If the dog isn’t out of the crate in the school year, he shouldn’t be out of the crate all summer.

Boston.com Pets: What should you do for other types of pets besides dogs?

Melanson: It’s similar. Cats can have toys. Even hamsters have little wheels they can run on. All these food puzzle things are kind of new in the past five years. They’re fun. For cats, there’s one called an Eggs-Cercizer. It’s similar to the Kibble Nibble. It’s a food toy and the food falls out.

Boston.com Pets: Do you recommend sending your pet to daycare?

Melanson: If your dog was in daycare three to five days a week and then you took him out for the summer, I wouldn’t recommend that. Keep him in a couple days a week to try to keep that routine the same. You could try a daycare if your dog loves dogs. People think dogs will enjoy playing with other dogs and that’s not always the case. And that’s OK. So if your dog plays with other dogs and loves other dogs, a daycare might be helpful.

Boston.com Pets: What are some other ways we can help our pets be happier this time of year?

Melanson: Don’t forget your dog or cat has been home all day without you. Please give them some attention so they are burning some energy and getting attention from you. They still need exercise, enrichment, and attention. It’s always fun to maybe put the kids and the dog in a training class, so the dog goes back to school too. There are basic obedience classes, agility classes, sniffing for fun classes...

Boston.com Pets: Sniffing for fun classes? What’s that?

Melanson: (laughs) You let your dog sniff out treats and you teach him slowly to do that so he finds something hidden in the house. So they are having fun with their noses. Kids can hide food and the dog can find it. The Animal Rescue League offers a Sniffing for Fun class.

Boston.com Pets: What should you do on weekends to continue supporting your pet?

Melanson: Try to keep the routine up on the weekends. I don’t want to tell people not to take their dog hiking, because that’s awesome. But try to keep your schedule the same—even on the weekends—for feeding and walks. Dogs are similar to humans. They like routines.

Boston.com Pets: When should you seek professional help for your pet’s blues?

Melanson: If the signs of stress are more severe. For example, scratching or chewing at doorways or windows (that’s a dog trying to get out), urinating or defacating in the house (if that hasn’t happened before), then you want to talk to your vet or a behaviorist. It might be a more severe case of separation anxiety.

Read more back-to-school blues tips from the Animal Rescue League of Boston and call its free Pet Behavior Helpline at 617-226-5666 if you have a question about your pet’s behavior. Leave a message and a counselor will call you back within 24 hours, 7 days a week.

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