During the shorter, darker days of winter many of us turn lethargic and gloomy. But seasonal affective disorder (SAD) isn’t just a human affliction. The animals we share our lives with may also suffer from something akin to the "winter blues."
Here’s what experts know about SAD in pets and what you can do to alleviate it. (Hint: Some of the same things that counteract seasonal depression in people also work for our four-legged companions.)
Starting in fall as the days get shorter and sunlight levels decline, many people notice their mood begins to dip. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD isn’t just a weather-related funk, but a type of depression that fluctuates with the seasons and causes unpleasant symptoms like sluggishness, increased appetite, depression, social withdrawal and even suicidal thoughts in the most severe cases. It’s believed that lower light levels prompt a decline in the feel-good brain hormone serotonin and boost the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
No surprise then that pets, with their similar brain chemistry, may also suffer from the same kind of seasonal hormonal havoc.
Not a lot of research has been done on pets, but a survey by a veterinary charity in the U.K. called the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) found that one in three dog owners noticed their pooch seemed down during the winter months. Symptoms ranged from aggressive behavior, inappropriate soiling and less interest in going for walks to lethargy, demand for more attention and increased sleep.
Like humans, cats may suffer from SAD during the winter months and require extra light and activity to head it off. (Photo: Bondesgaarde/Flickr)
Cats also apparently get the winter blues. One-third of cat owners in the same survey said their felines seemed glum in the winter and about one-quarter said their pet ate more.
Is it real?
There’s plenty of evidence that animals suffer from physical afflictions related to seasonal sun deprivation. One is called light responsive alopecia (fur loss that occurs in certain dog breeds during the winter months). But there’s not yet any hard science on whether pets actually experience SAD. Remember, the U.K. study was subjective, based on pet owners’ perceptions rather than rigorous research.
One alternate explanation for SAD-like symptoms in cats and dogs is that they’re picking up on the blue moods of their owners. Studies show that dogs, in particular, recognize human emotions and respond to them.
Or perhaps pets are merely bored during the winter months when they can’t get outside as much. Lack of physical and mental stimulation may push them into listlessness.
Remedies for winter doldrums
Getting pets outside for a regular dose of sunshine during shorter winter days can boost their mood and help ward off SAD. (Photo: Matthias Zirngibl/Wikimedia Commons)
Whether pets are prone to SAD like humans are or they slip into a seasonal slump for other reasons, there are ways to keep their spirits high during the chilly season. In fact, the same fixes that help people beat winter depression might also help their animal companions maintain a brighter mood. Here are some simple things you and your pet can try together.
More indoor light. Open your curtains and shades during the day to let in natural light. Position your pet’s bed near a sunny window and be sure to hang out there, too. Also consider light therapy that mimics sunlight. Buy a full-spectrum light box that covers the electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to near-ultraviolet and plant yourself and your pet in front of it for 30 to 60 minutes a day.
Providing pets with more love and indoor fun during SAD season is good for their well-being — and yours. (Photo: pandabearphotography/Flickr)
Spend quality indoor time together. Engage your pet more when you’re inside during the winter months with new toys, extra play and increased cuddle time. Multitask by enjoying these activities in front of the light box.
Enjoy the outdoors. Take advantage of mood-boosting sunny days by letting your pet go outside during peak daylight hours. Better yet, join in for a romp in the yard or a walk in the park (cats can be leash trained). Outdoor time has the added advantage of allowing pets (and you) to exercise, take in stimulating neighborhood sights and socialize with other people and animals. All are known blues busters.