According to the Mayo Clinic, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons—SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.” The lack of sunlight during winter months, combined with our tendency to spend less time outside during the coldest times of year, are thought to lead to development of SAD.
Lots of research has been done on SAD in relation to humans who suffer from it. But what about animals? Is it possible that our beloved pets are suffering from SAD, as well? The short answer is, maybe. But the long answer is a bit more complicated. Although dogs, like humans, have the hormones melatonin and serotonin—the fluctuating amounts of which can play a part in SAD—our brain chemistry isn’t exactly the same. In addition, since animals are unable to speak to their veterinarians about what’s bothering them, vets rely on their owners’ perceptions of their animals’ behavior, which makes it tough to diagnose.
It’s possible that pets who exhibit behaviors that in humans might signal depression—lethargy, sadness, behavioral changes like aggressiveness—are suffering from SAD, but it’s equally, if not more, possible that they’re simply in tune with their humans, who are exhibiting those same signs. Dogs in particular can recognize emotions in their humans and might be particularly susceptible to changes in their human’s behavior and mood, especially if they’re spending more time with us in close quarters.
Many pet owners have noticed that their dogs and cats tend to sleep more and expend less energy in the winter months, but again, it’s hard to say if this is because they’re suffering from SAD or because they’re not spending as much time outside due to inclement weather. In all honestly, it could also be that they’re bored, as being kept indoors may minimize their mental stimulation, or that they haven’t been getting enough exercise. Without realizing it, you may also be spending less time interacting with your pets (dogs in particular) since you’re not taking them outside as often as you do in the warmer months.
Whatever the reason—SAD, depression, boredom—there are a few steps you can take to improve your pet’s behavior.
Making changes to your indoor lighting will go a long way to improving the moods of all the inhabitants of your house, both those with four legs and those with two. Place beds near windows that receive light and open the curtains as soon as the sun rises, keeping them open for all daylight hours. You may also want to invest in light bulbs that emulate natural daylight, as opposed to common light bulbs which don’t cover the electromagnetic spectrum.
Regardless of weather, spend more time outside. As long as both you and your animal are properly prepared for the cold weather, you should try to spend as much time outside in the winter months as possible. The opportunity to move around will help improve everyone’s mood, as well as their circulation. Also, you’ll be exposing them to natural light, which as mentioned above, is superior to traditional indoor lighting. Beyond that, the chance to socialize with you and/or other animals and people is a great mood enhancer.
When the weather is too harsh to go outside, try to keep your animal engaged indoors. For both dogs and cats, buying a few new toys for them to play with while you’re not home may help keep them entertained and their brains engaged. You may also want to consider buying a puzzle feeder, if you don’t own one already. It can help stimulate their hunting and foraging instincts while also keeping them entertained. And of course, don’t forget to make sure you’re spending time interacting with them each day, as well!
Whether your pet is suffering from SAD or simply having a case of the winter blues, the steps listed above should help restore them, at least somewhat, to their usual selves. And once they’re showing signs of being happier, that is sure to help put your own mind at ease. With a little bit of thought and perhaps a few new purchases, you’ll all enjoy the change in the seasons a little more.
However, a word of caution: cats in particular are adept at hiding signs of illness, and changes in behavior may be a signal that something more serious is going on. If you’re concerned that your pet’s behavior could be tied to something other than SAD, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your veterinarian.