By Paula Fitzsimmons
‘Tis the season of shorter days, plunging temperatures, and for many of us, bouts of the winter blues. Some are coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which Mayo Clinic says is a type of depression that causes a myriad of unpleasant symptoms, including low energy, loss of appetite, and feelings of sadness that usually start in the late fall or early winter and go away “during the sunnier days of spring and summer.”
If you are affected by seasonal change, you may naturally be concerned about your pets, especially if you’ve noticed behavioral changes in them.
Do Cats and Dogs Suffer From SAD as Humans Do?
According to Steve Dale, a certified animal behavior consultant, “The definitive answer is . . . maybe. Nobody knows for sure.”
Dale says we share much of the same brain chemistry with dogs, including the hormones melatonin and serotonin. When daylight decreases, the brain produces more melatonin and less serotonin. Both of these changes can have an adverse effect on mood. So it’s conceivable that pets can get SAD, but there could also be other explanations. The problem, he says, is that there’s no sure way to objectively measure or diagnose SAD in pets.
Little research has been done on SAD or mood disorders in pets. One survey by the People’s Dispensary of Sick Animals (PDSA) in the United Kingdom showed that owners do think that their pets get depressed during darker months. But the study was subjective, relying more on human perception instead of scientific method.
How Reduced Sunlight Can Affect Animals
This is not to say that seasonal changes can’t adversely impact animals. Dr. Karen Becker, an integrative and wellness veterinarian says reduced sunlight can cause Light Responsive Alopecia—also referred to as Seasonal Flank Alopecia—in dogs. Certain breeds, including Airedale Terriers, Schnauzers, Doberman Pinscher, Bulldogs, Scottish Terriers, and Boxers are more susceptible.
She says scientists believe the condition results from lack of sunlight exposure to the pineal gland. Indeed, dogs living in northern climates are more affected than those in sunnier, southern climates. And when exposed to adequate amounts of sunlight, dogs re-grow their fur.
Is Your Pet Responding to Your Behavior?
One possible explanation for your pet’s low mood could be your own sadness or lack of energy. “Pets’ moods mirror our moods,” says Dale. “If we’re moody around the house all day, cats and dogs can pick up on this.”
This is consistent with a recent study published in The Royal Society’s Biology Letters, which confirms dogs can cognitively recognize emotions in humans and other dogs. This ability goes deeper than simply learning behaviors—dogs can apparently recognize moods based on abstract mental representations.
It’s possible, too, that your pet is bored. Dale says dogs spend more time outside with people in June rather than in January, and as a result, your dog may not be getting adequate exercise and mental stimulation.
Becker says some dogs sleep more and are less energetic during winter, but that it: “begs the question whether this is a result of their owners being less active and engaged with their pets, rather than true seasonal depression.”
Simple Ways to Keep Your Pet Healthy and Happy During Winter
Whether your pet has SAD, is mirroring your mood, or is bored, there are some things you can try to improve overall well-being.
Improve Your Indoor Lighting
Dale suggests ensuring your cat’s or dog’s bed is situated near a sunny-side window. This is especially important for animals, such as indoor cats, who are unable to go outside.
Becker agrees. “One of the best things you can do for your pets on a daily basis is to open the shades when the sun comes up, and allow as much natural sunlight in your home as you can.” She says an increase in the amount of light entering your home means more light entering your pet’s pupils, which positively affects brain chemistry.
She also recommends full spectrum lighting for both you and your animals during the months when natural sunlight is decreased, and you can’t get outside as much as you’d like. Light boxes designed for people with SAD might also help pets with similar symptoms.
Venturing outside is not only good for you, but for your companion, as well. Becker says it gives animals opportunities to move, ground themselves, and improve circulation. A side benefit is that your dog will get exposure to natural sunlight and be able to socialize with other dogs and people.
Motivating our dogs to go out into the cold may be less of an issue than it is for us. “Even the most depressed dog will often times eagerly respond to ‘do you wanna’ go out and play in the snow?’” says Becker.
Keep Them Engaged Indoors
There are several things you can do to enrich your pet’s indoor environment. With cats, Dale says you can promote their foraging instincts by placing food devices around the home, instead of bowl feeding them. Or try placing cat toys around the house horizontally and vertically, as well as rotating enriching toys and games.
With dogs, he says you can try something as simple as putting some kibble inside a plastic container. Your dog may enjoy the challenge of watching the kibble bounce, then empty from the container.
Making time to interact with your companion on a daily basis inside the home is essential to their wellbeing. If you need to be away from home for extended periods, letting them have access to a window can be beneficial, according to Becker: “I call it ‘Mother Nature’s Television’ for pets.”
What About Diet, Supplements, and Vitamin D?
You may take extra vitamin D supplements during winter, but does that mean you should be giving it to your pets? Cailin Heinze, DVM, assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University says “I wouldn’t rush to treat a disease that we don’t know exists!” Although some humans may benefit from vitamin D supplementation, it can be toxic for pets in high amounts, causing potentially fatal kidney disease and other problems. She says pets can get adequate vitamin D intake through commercial pet diets.
While you should always exercise caution with pet supplements and discuss them with your veterinarian, one to consider is a quality pet probiotic supplement. Becker says probiotics improve gut health in pets—similar to what it does for the human biome—which in turn may contribute to improved mood, behavior, and overall well-being.
She also says a diet consisting of adequate levels of essential fatty acids—particularly omega-3 fatty acids, can help with your pet’s cognitive function.
There is not enough data to support a definitive diagnosis of SAD in pets. Malaise, lack of energy, lack of appetite, and other SAD-like symptoms may occur during winter, but can also be attributed to other factors, including a shift in your own mood. Taking a few simple steps, like bonding with your pet, promoting exercise, increasing lighting, and ensuring a proper diet, can go a long way to promote the health of your pet—not just during colder and darker months, but year-round.
If your pet is showing a lack of appetite and a decreased energy level or any of the other symptoms of SAD that does not improve with positive environmental changes, it’s important to visit your veterinarian to rule out any underlying health problems.