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Here’s How To Make Saying Goodbye to Your Pet Before Vacation As Painless as Possible

Ta-ta for now, Fluffy!

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You love your pet. You wish you two could be attached at the hip. But realistically, you must spend some time apart, whether it’s for vacation, family visits, or work trips. Since fuzzy friend first class flights don’t exist yet, and you can’t always bring your dog or cat along, you have to figure out how to make leaving them behind as stress-free (for both of you) as possible. See these tips on how to prep your pet before you leave on a trip — and remember, it’s not goodbye, it’s see you later. 

Does my dog miss me when I’m gone?

Picture it: You’re on a plane about to take off for vacation, and you see a picture of your pup on your phone. Even though it hasn’t been long, a wave of emotion comes over you — you miss their little paws and their big, sweet eyes, and you begin to wonder if they miss you too. Science says they do, and they can even have a concept of how long you’ve been away. A 2018 study showed that animals have a cognitive “inner clock” that enables them to understand the passage of time, and a 2011 study found that dogs showed more excitement when their owners returned after two hours than they did after the owners were gone for just 30 minutes. You probably already knew Spot misses you by the way she greets you with a wagging tail and tip-tap paws every time you come home, but it’s nice to hear science can confirm it.

Does my cat miss me, though?

It isn’t just dogs that miss their owners. Cats may have a reputation for being indifferent and aloof, but 2019 research shows that cats are actually more bonded to their humans than we previously thought. In this study, cats spent two minutes with their owner, and then two minutes apart. Upon reuniting with their owners, cats showed behavior that indicates their bonds to their owners are “surprisingly similar to infants’ [bonds with their mothers],” according to the researchers. In fact, 65 percent of the cats in the study were securely bonded to their owners. So yes, your feelings of missing your feline fur baby are definitely mutual. 

How To Prep Your Pet Before You Leave

When your bags are packed, your gas tank is full, and your travel playlist is queued up, the biggest hit to your pre-travel excitement is looking at your pet before you walk out the door, cementing the reality that they can’t come along. It’s never easy saying goodbye, but there are steps you can take to mitigate the stress your pet feels when you leave for an extended period of time, whether you’re boarding them or leaving them at home with a sitter. 

Establish a routine with the caretaker: Pets, like humans, thrive on routine. Your absence already changes an aspect of your furry friend’s day-to-day, so the boarder or sitter maintaining your pet’s normal schedule (what time they eat breakfast and dinner, what time they go outside, when they like to play, etc.) can help retain a sense of normalcy. Also, let the caretaker know of any of your pet’s quirks: does Kitty especially love being scratched behind her left ear? Does Fido like to sleep with his favorite squeaky teddy bear? Taking this extra step to familiarize the caretaker with your pet’s preferences can make them feel even more secure while you’re gone. And don’t be afraid to ask the caretaker to check in sometimes: Maybe they can send you pictures or a quick text every day so you can feel up-to-date. Don’t go overboard with the check-ins, though — you left the house for a reason, and you need to fulfill your purpose! As hard as it is to hear, your pet will be okay without you for a few days — we promise. (And don’t forget to leave the caretaker with instructions, medications, and anything necessary for your pet’s wellbeing.)

Leave your pet a dirty T-shirt or two: You think it’s gross when your dog gnaws on a sweaty sock or your cat takes a nap in the dirty laundry pile, but to them, your concentrated smells are the epitome of comfort. A study conducted in 2014 reveals that canine brains’ reward centers react more strongly to the scent of their human families than to that of strangers or other dogs. In fact, their brains react to the familiar scent even when their human isn’t present — indicating that dogs have lasting mental representations of their owners associated with smell. The researchers compared this finding to how the smell of a loved one’s perfume can trigger an emotional reaction; but since dogs’ senses of smell are much stronger, so is their mental response. Other sources note that cats are also drawn to the familiar scent of their owners, since they have four times the smelling-power of humans, and they find comfort in your aroma. Rover.com recommends leaving your pet with some clothing you’ve already worn, like a T-shirt or socks, or a blanket that smells like home. 

Play a tiring game before you go: A well-exercised pet is a happy pet. Exercise leads to decreased anxiety in pets, just like it does for humans, and playing a fun game together can be a good bonding experience. In fact, a lack of exercise and stimulation may cause your pet to feel anxious and act out. This might lead them to engage in destructive behaviors like scratching up the couch or going through the trash, veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil tells Chewy. The importance of exercise and stimulation goes for both cats and dogs: “Play is an important part of relieving stress … it helps cats release those feel-good hormones,” says cat expert Mikel Delgado. “It’s just as important as food and water.”

Don’t make a show of your exit: As much as you want to smother your pet with smooches before you go, try to refrain — maintaining your composure can actually help them feel more calm when you leave. Both cats and dogs are perceptive and can sense your emotions, studies show. If you’re clearly upset or emotional about leaving your pet behind, they will pick up on those feelings and start to feel the same distress you’re feeling. Try to make your farewells as normal and as close to your everyday interactions as possible so your pet doesn’t get worked up. Save the extra hugs and excitement for when you get home. After all, studies show it might not just be you crying when you’re finally reunited with Fido — dogs’ eyes well up with tears of joy, too. 

These tips are helpful, but they aren’t long-term solutions for pets with serious separation anxiety. If your pet suffers severe separation anxiety, talk to your vet about steps you can take to help them regulate their emotions. There are medications, supplies, and professional training tips that can help. Have fun on your trip, and don’t forget to bring your pet a souvenir!

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