For some people, winter signals snow and fun activities, holidays, and cozy nights by the fireplace with a hot chocolate. Many wait all year long to bundle up and find the best sledding hill, or the highest peaks for skiing. But for others, it may also herald in the winter blues.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects about half a million Americans with its lack of energy and feelings of sadness, but it may also affect our pets too. Many dog and cat pawrents have reported symptoms similar to those in humans affected by this type of depression. In fact, a UK survey discovered that up to 50% of dogs are grumpier in the colder months, have less energy, and eat and sleep more.
So, just what is SAD, and how can it affect our furry pals?
Seasonal affective disorder is a kind of depression that is triggered by a seasonal change. While it can occur in the spring or summer, it usually rears its dreary head in the winter months when our exposure to sunlight decreases due to cold temperatures and lessened hours of daylight. In humans, symptoms include reduced energy levels, feelings of sadness and despair, changes in appetite and sleeping habits, and other signs of depression.
Though we can’t know if our dogs are actually feeling sad, many have exhibited other symptoms of depression, such as having an increased appetite and weight gain, sleeping longer, mood changes such as crabbiness or loss of interest in toys or activities, and an overall lack of energy. Being stuck inside without too much to do can certainly cause boredom, but the winter blues may actually have a chemical cause.
While scientists haven’t fully figured out what causes SAD, evidence points to two specific hormones that may be involved. Serotonin helps to regulate the mood, appetite and sleep patterns of mammals, but since it needs sunlight to be produced, a drop in hours of sunlight during the shorter days of winter means less is secreted into the body. And the vitamin D that promotes serotonin activity is only synthesized when sunlight hits our skin, meaning less sunlight is a double whammy for serotonin.
Melatonin also helps to regulate the sleep cycle, and works to tell our body when it is the right time to be asleep or awake. Since this hormone is produced in darkness, lower light conditions mean more melatonin would be secreted than usual. When the delicate balance between serotonin and melatonin is disrupted, that’s when we can see symptoms of SAD manifesting in ourselves, and even our pets.
If you just can’t get your dog up off the floor to play, or feel like they are just plain unhappy in the winter, there are lots of things you can do to help.
If you’ve noticed changes to your dog’s appetite, sleeping habits or mood, you’ll want to talk with your veterinarian to rule out any environmental changes or health conditions that could be causing them. But if you are left with nothing but the winter blues, beat them at their own game! By increasing exposure to sunlight, and engaging their bodies and minds, you can help your dog cope with seasonal affective disorder.
Here are some tips to get your dog out of their seasonal funk and back to the happy pup they usually are!
- Take walks or hire a dog walker to get your pup out during the brightest time of the day. Check out these tips for safe winter walks!
- Open the shades to let more daylight inside, and consider putting your dog’s bed near a window during the day.
- Use a “full spectrum” or “daylight” lamp or lightbulb near your dog for an hour daily. There are several kinds available for people and for pets that would work great.
- Give your dog a vitamin D supplement to help boost the “good mood” hormone serotonin, with your veterinarian’s approval, of course!
- Get your dog exercising even if stuck indoors with some pawsome indoor games, such as fetch or hide and seek!
- Teach your dog a new trick or command to stimulate that mind! Training them to “Go Find” can create new game opportunities too!
- Keep your dog awake and engaged if you are stuck working by giving them activities, such as treat toys or puzzle games.
- Set up a scavenger hunt, toss a balloon, or play other games with the whole family to get your lazy canine moving and having fun.
- Create yummy homemade treats for some variety in those long winter days. Try some of these furtastic dog cookie recipes, or check out these for the peanut butter fans!
- Change up the toy routine by turning treats into toys! Freeze treat-filled toys, or create new DIY treat toys your dog will love to help break the monotony of day after day inside.
- Put a dog movie on the TV, make a dog-friendly, seasonally inspired drink your pup will love, and get in a good cuddle with your furvorite pal that’s sure to lift their spirits!