After our two daughters got up each morning, our 7-year-old beagle mix, Daisy, would pad down the hall and into one of their bedrooms. She’d hop onto the bed and paw back the covers near the pillow, creating a shallow nest where she’d curl up and doze for hours, basking in the warmth and smells left behind by one of her two favorite people.
When she wasn’t sleeping on a bed, Daisy could count on snuggling with one of the girls on the living room couch or heading out for a walk with either of them, followed by her favorite treats.
All that changed last fall when both daughters left for college. Natalie, 18, headed off to her freshman year at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Emily, 21, returned to William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, after taking 18 months off for medical treatment. The bustle and noise of our home was reduced to a quiet that was often disconcerting. It was an emotional time as my husband and I adjusted to our new lives as empty nesters.
Within days of the girls’ departure, I noticed that Daisy no longer ventured into our daughters’ rooms in the morning. Instead, she spent hours curled up in a small ball in a corner of the couch, her head resting morosely on her two front paws. If she headed down the hall at all, it was to jump on the bed in Emily’s room, where she would nestle into the fur of Bernard, a big, floppy St. Bernard stuffed animal. Often, her bowl of kibble would sit untouched for hours.
Some of my friends with pets also noticed a change when their children left home. One says her aging cocker spaniel/collie mix, Mike, became more lethargic and spent more time in his crate after her youngest daughter went off to college in 2017. I wondered: Could our pets be suffering from empty-nest syndrome?
Not in the sense that parents do, says Mary Huntsberry, an associate certified applied animal behaviorist whose Gaithersburg business, Helping Pets Behave, offers consulting and training classes for pets and their owners. “There is no indication that dogs have the cognitive ability to understand that a person is moving out and never coming back,” she says. “What they do have and thrive off is routine. When these routines get disrupted, some dogs are better able to bounce back than others.”
So while it may seem to pet owners that our dogs are depressed, it’s really that they don’t know how to handle the changes in their lives. “Dogs are creatures of habit, they like things to stay the same,” says Dr. Kathleen Dougherty, owner of Kenwood Animal Hospital in Bethesda.
A few weeks after our daughters left, my husband and I took Daisy to see each of them at college for their September birthdays. We figured it would help Daisy to know that they hadn’t disappeared forever. Sure enough, Daisy ran right up to each one when we arrived, and we were happy to see her excitement and joy.
But Huntsberry says the visits certainly meant more to all of us than to Daisy. Owners come up with such plans because they want to help their pets, she says, but “there’s no way for dogs to know that, ‘Oh, Suzy’s fine.’ They don’t know where college is or what an apartment is.”
Huntsberry and Dougherty say cheering up a pet who seems out of sorts can be as simple as taking over the activities of the person who has left, such as feeding, taking walks and grooming. “A little extra attention” should help, Dougherty says.
In the short term, pet owners can also try using calming pheromones, which are available as a spray or even in a collar, to relieve a dog’s anxiety. Anti-anxiety medications aren’t usually needed, she says. Huntsberry also suggests that creating a new routine with our pets—such as taking a daily walk along a different route—will help them snap back to their normal selves. “If it breaks a pattern and the dog feels better, go for it,” she says. “It teaches them that everything is going to be OK.”