When our children return to school or go away to college we understand what is happening and why they are gone, but our pets only know that a family member is missing. Regardless of the species of your pet, she perceives herself as a member of a pack or family. When a member of that family changes his daily pattern resulting in long absences, the pet may react in a variety of ways. The most common reaction is loss of appetite. Don't worry since your animal companion will not starve himself and will begin eating again soon. However, he may have other reactions.
If you are depressed by your child's absence you may look to your pet for comfort. You may want to walk your dog more often, have your cat sit in your lap, let your bird fly around the house, let your iguana walk freely filling up some of the empty space. But your animal companion often wants to simply crawl into her den and hide. Since you understand what is happening and she does not, she must be let alone to deal with her sadness in her own way. If this behavior exceeds a few days or results in your pet not pottying in more than 18 hours, gently pick her up or coax her into the appropriate location. But, in spite of your own feelings, try not to be angry or harsh.
Hiding out and loss of appetite may be the most pleasant of reactions. While the most visible human reaction to loss is sadness, under that sadness is anger and resentment. It is the same with your pet. Consequently, an intact male cat or dog often responds by marking inside the home. A neutered animal may do the same by urinating and defecating inside, sometimes even in the bed of the missing family member.
Another common reaction is destructive behavior such as dumping the trash. They may also tear up pillows, jump onto furniture such as dressers and tables and knock things onto the floor. Scratching at doors and windows is an expression of separation anxiety, as is destroying blinds and tearing down drapes. In such cases it may be necessary to confine your pet to a crate or their normal cage/tank more often than normal. Such confinement may be very good as it gives your pet something to think about other than the missing family member. If your cat or dog is used to freedom of the home and now is confined in a crate her thoughts will likely be focused on getting out of the crate rather than on your child. This additional change in daily activity will be an additional break in the normal pattern. Once you give your pet freedom again, her thoughts will concentrate on you and that joy.
Always remember that your animal companion has experienced big changes before and always bounced back. He left his mom and family when he joined yours and he took on your family as his own. He will adjust to changing circumstances because that is what he needs to do. Forcing him or overindulging him at a time of change will only make him fearful or reinforce his distressing behavior. Pets are similar to us when handling loss: They need to work through it at their own pace so they can go on with life.
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