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Dina Trifonova  /  Featurepics.com
Cats and dogs can experience depression when kids leave the house.
TODAY contributor
updated 9/7/2011 3:41:03 PM ET 2011-09-07T19:41:03

As kids across America go back to school or head off to college, bringing to an end weeks of summer fun and increased activity in the home, it’s not only parents who suffer from empty nest syndrome; it can badly affect family pets too.

At least one in 6 dogs, along with a countless number of cats, will exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety or display increased levels if they are already prone to the condition, said Professor Nicholas Dodman, director of the small animal behavior clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, MA.

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“Dogs and cats that enjoy human interaction and affection can become psychologically unglued — especially if their best human friend in the household happens to be one of the kids and suddenly that person 'disappears' and goes off to college. It definitely leaves a void in the pet’s lifestyle,” explained Dodman. “The same applies when kids go back to school and suddenly their lives are so filled with activities that they no longer have the same amount of time for fun that includes the family pet.”

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Dodman cited the a canine client who had slept with his teenage best friend since puppyhood and when the boy went off to college, the dog found himself sleeping alone in the empty bedroom.

“So he came downstairs looking for company and a new place to sleep. The husband had an issue with him sleeping in the master bedroom and locked him out. So the dog sat on the landing every night and cried. By now he was an older dog and the lifestyle change really upset him,” explained Dodman, who was able to rectify the situation with a variety of suggestions, which the family duly followed.

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“Cats don't display their feelings as outwardly as dogs do,” added Dodman. “So often their anxiety and depression flies under the radar and their people don’t really notice. But it can be an anxious time for a cat too.”

Dodman said there are outward signs that the family pet is suffering from anxiety and empty nest syndrome.

“When it comes to dogs, if you were to tape record or set up a video cam, a pet that is feeling the loss of a best friend when left completely home alone, even for a short spell, will immediately start pacing up and down and begin whining or barking. Some dogs will even attempt to escape by scratching the back of a door or pulling down a blind. Others show displacement behaviors such as trying to get into a trashcan or chewing on a couch in an attempt to ward of their frustration. Thirty per cent of dogs may even have an accident on the floor.”

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Another very obvious symptom that affects both dogs and cats is reduced appetite and sometimes a complete loss of appetite.

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“They are simply too upset and too anxious to eat,” explains Dodman.

When it comes to cats, they may not come to greet people, if this is their usual modus operandi, and sleep a lot more. Some can also begin grooming excessively, pulling out chunks of fur until their skin is raw.

Family pets can also pick up on parents’ emotions.

“Dogs can read body language such as posture and body movements as well as we can speak spoken language,” said Dodman. “Cats of course are very empathic creatures and also pick up on human emotions around them. So if mom and dad are showing signs of depression, they will pick up on it and that will alter their behavior too.

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While there are no statistics as to how many pets need mood altering drugs to snap them out of a deep funk, there are in fact two drugs licensed by the FDA — Reconcile and Clomicalm — that can be prescribed by a veterinarian.

“Both are a course of medication and take several weeks to get up to speed,” explained Dodman, who prescribes only in dire circumstances.

“Ideally, if you know your pet is so unbelievably sensitive and would fall apart psychologically speaking, it’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian in advance and begin a course about a month before the lifestyle change is going to take place. This will help a pet transition better.”

Exercise is another fix recommended by veterinarians. Make sure your dog has enough exercise for its breed and that typically amounts to an hour a day of outdoor cardio vascular activity such as chasing and running that allows the dog to blow of steam. It’s also great for a dog’s mental enrichment.

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“I also like scent lures for dogs,” said Dodman. “Take a piece of lamb’s wool cloth and rub it with cooking scents such as vanilla on anise. They are intrigued by these odors, which in turn provide them with olfactory stimulation and fun."

Cats will benefit from between 30-40 minutes of exercise a day prompted by chasing laser beams, interaction with wand-type toys and a variety of battery-operated activities that hone their hunting skills and give both mental and physical enrichment.

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Apart from keeping them busy with things to do things to chew and things to smell, Dodman suggested giving them entertainment such as a bird feeder outside a window that will attract both birds and squirrels. A fish tank provides hours of fun, while leaving the TV on an animal channel offers both audio and visual entertainment.

Doggy day care in another option to consider, even if its once or twice a week. While cats may enjoy visits from an elderly person in the neighborhood who doesn't have pets of their own to add “activity” to the home.

Empty nest syndrome can be a very real problem for pets. But by simply enriching the home environment helps them to transition to a lifestyle that contrasts to what has been happening all summer long.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Are you my mommy?

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  1. Wrinkly meets stripey

    "Are you my mommy?" Meet furry, four-legged moms who adopted, nursed and nurtured animals of completely different species.

    The first mom up is Cleopatra, a shar-pei who "adopted" two baby tigers in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on June 4, 2012. The tigers, whose mother refused to feed them, found an unusual wet nurse in the wrinkly, sand-colored dog. The cubs were born in late May in a zoo at the October health resort in Sochi. (Igor Okunin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Squirrel learned to purr

    Emmy, a sweet-natured tortoiseshell mother cat, readily adopted Rocky, a baby squirrel who fell out of his nest, in September 2010. Rocky landed in the yard of Jim and Karen Watkins of Carthage, Miss., and they brought him to Emmy to see whether she would nurse him along with her new litter of three kittens. She accepted the squirrel right away, and Rocky did some quick adapting of his own: He learned how to purr just like a cat. (Caters News / ZUMApress.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grrrrrrrrr-ateful

    Isabella, a golden retriever in Kansas who adopted three white Bengal tiger cubs and nursed them as her own. The tiger cubs -- Nasira, Anjika and Sidani -- needed somewhere to turn because their mother stopped nursing them 15 hours after their birth. Zookeepers Tom and Allie Harvey brought the cubs home, and their dog Isabella stepped right up. (Tom Harvey and Keith Philpott) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. She saved baby pig's bacon

    Katjinga, a Rhodesian ridgeback dog who lives on a 20-acre farm in Germany, adopted an abandoned pot-bellied piglet in August 2009. The tiny black piglet, named Paulinchen, had been so small at birth that her mother likely overlooked it. Katjinga's owner, Roland Adam, found the piglet alone and cold and brought it to his 8-year-old dog. "She loved the piglet at first sight and cares about it in the way she did for her own puppies," Adam said. "Days later she started lactating again and giving milk for the piggy. She obviously regards it now as her own baby." (Fame Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Not as nutty as it looks

    When the tree these baby squirrels called home was felled by a chain saw, Pixie the poodle was there to help. Pixie still had milk after giving birth to her first litter of puppies a few months earlier, and she accepted the three squirrels with no qualms in March 2010. She nursed the homeless squirrels for five weeks at her North Carolina home, and then an animal rehabilitation specialist continued raising them until they were ready to be released. (Ashley Steven Ayscue / The Daily Dispatch via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A cat with no dog issues

    A Siamese cat named Amanda, owned by Debbie Girting of Beaver, Pa., is shown here nursing her two newborn kittens along with an orphaned litter of puppies in March 2010. Lucy, Girting's Maltese Pomeranian dog, gave birth to seven pups on March 7, and Amanda's kittens were born on the exact same day. Sadly, four days later, Lucy had a seizure and died. Amanda stepped right up and adopted the puppies as her own. (Lucy Schaly / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Instant love

    Laska the Alsatian immediately viewed it as her mission to nurture two tiny, abandoned wild boars who were close to death when they were found in Hamburg, Germany in March 2010. The baby boars -- dubbed Alice and Emma -- were brought to the home of the Heckers, Laska's owners. Because of their small size, baby boars can't stay warm enough alone at night to keep alive. Laska focused on snuggling up against them to keep them warm, cleaning them with her tongue and picking them up whenever they toppled over. To read more about Laska and the baby boars, visit PeoplePets.com. (Barcroft / Fame Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. I'm there for you

    Smaigel the cat nurses her kittens and four puppies at her owner Mohammad Al-Hamoury's house in Amman, Jordan in February 2009. Smaigel took it upon herself to care for the puppies after their mother died in a car accident. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Got elk?

    The young elk pictured here was rescued from a flooding river by a farmer in South Korea in July 2009. This female dog eagerly adopted the elk and began breastfeeding and guarding him. (Inje Municipal Government / Hand / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Mother instincts took over'

    Chia, a Pomeranian in Emporia, Kan., let four abandoned kittens nurse from her in August 2000. Chia, who had a 2-week-old puppy of her own at the time, adopted the motherless kittens after they were found by her owner's boyfriend. "Her mother instincts took over," owner Kelsey Wilson said. "She herded them and got them to nurse." (David Doemland / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A gorilla's 'motherly instinct'

    Koko the gorilla has loved cuddling and nurturing kittens since 1984. Gorilla Foundation volunteer Janis Turner arranged to have a litter of orphaned kittens visit Koko in September 2009, and Koko became especially enamored with a tiny orange kitten named Tigger, pictured here. "Something fascinated her about Tigger," Turner told PeoplePets.com. "Koko purrs. I get chills just thinking about it. She does this deep purr and she's so gentle and has this loving looking in her eye. ... Kittens are so calm around Koko because she has that motherly instinct." Read more about Koko at PeoplePets.com. (Ron Cohn / The Gorilla Foundation / koko.org) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. That'll do, pig

    The "Happy Families" exhibits at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand certainly aren't run-of-the-mill. They feature animal families of mixed species, including families of baby pigs adopted by tiger mothers and families of tiger cubs adopted by mother pigs. One such surrogate sow is pictured here in this April 2009 photo with her baby tiger cubs. (Barbara Walton / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Playful 'siblings'

    Tita, a cat who belongs to Ruben Gaviria, breastfeeds a squirrel as her kitten plays with it at Gaviria's house near Medellin, Colombia. Gaviria rescued the squirrel after it was found injured in a park in February 2010. (ALBEIRO LOPERA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. She wanted to be a mom

    A lion tamarin monkey at the London Zoo is so known for her strong motherly instincts that zookeepers dubbed her "Maternal Juanita." And in the summer of 2010, Juanita found a way to make her dreams come true: She adopted a monkey of another species – a baby emperor tamarin. The surrogate mom began carrying her adopted baby around on her back. The publication LiveScience noted how "the emperor tamarin's grey body and white moustache stand out against its 'mother's' fiery orange mane." (The Zoological Society of London) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Another 'Happy Family'

    Three baby pigs rest next to their adoptive mother, Sai Mai, an 8-year-old tiger, at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand in January 2010. Sai Mai nurses and cares for the piglets as if they were her own. (Sukree Sukplang / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dads, this one's for you

    Many male animals have strong parental impulses, too. Take, for instance, this wild long-tailed macaque monkey in Bali, Indonesia. He stunned animal lovers around the world when he adopted an abandoned kitten and cared for it as his own. The monkey was spotted in a forest protectively nuzzling and grooming the ginger kitten, making sure no harm came to it. The extraordinary sight was captured by amateur photographer Anne Young while on a holiday to the Monkey Forest Park in Bali's Ubud region. (Anne Young / solentnews.co.uk) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (16) Are you my mommy?
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