Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
The Winter Blues in Dogs
Each year as winter approaches and the nights draw in and the weather worsens, many people begin to experience a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. The symptoms include lack of energy, a constant, low mood, irritability, sleepiness, and carbohydrate cravings. For some people, SAD is hugely disruptive to their daily lives and can cause them to become isolated or clinically depressed.
SAD in humans has only been properly recognised since 1984 when the term was first used in a paper published by the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD. However, long before that, it was known that people could become depressed or lethargic in winter for no obvious reason other than the change in the seasons.
At first, no one was thinking that animals along with humans might experience SAD. Only in recent years has research begun into the possibility that our pets, in particular dogs and cats, could also suffer a form of SAD.
Back in 2007, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), a UK charity that offers free and low-cost health care for sick pets, conducted a survey of owners asking them if they felt their pets became depressed in winter. One in three owners reported that their pets seemed depressed in winter, noting a significant downturn in their moods. While half of the owners questioned said their pets slept more in winter and 20% noticed that their pets were less active. According to Elaine Pendlebury, PDSA's senior veterinary surgeon: ". . . the onset of dark nights could certainly have an impact on our pets' mood."
UK pet food manufacturer Forthglade has also conducted research into the possibility that pets suffer from SAD. In a survey of 2000 pet owners, close to half reported seeing a change in their pet's behaviour during the winter months. A whopping 44% of owners questioned, had considered seeking veterinary or behavioural help to combat their pet's seasonal depression.
Forthglade asked canine behaviourist Nick Jones for his opinion on why our dogs might be getting depressed in winter:
“The long dark days of winter don’t just take a toll on the two-legged population; our four-legged friends also feel the strain. It's clear that many dogs exhibit symptoms replicating the human condition of SAD: lethargy, an increased appetite, irritability and a reluctance to go outside and exercise - all as a result of natural sunlight being at a minimum."
What Is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder still isn't fully understood, but the main theory why some people become depressed in winter is that it is due to the lower light levels. It is thought that the lack of sunlight in winter could have an effect on a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, causing it to not work correctly. The hypothalamus is responsible for releasing hormones into the body, including melatonin and serotonin.
Melatonin is a sleep hormone that helps the body to shut down at night. Serotonin also affects sleep, as well as influencing your mood and appetite. Low serotonin levels are believed to be one of the causes of depression and anti-depressants such as Prozac are designed to increase the flow of serotonin to the brain.
When these two key hormones are out of kilter, SAD can be the result. Sufferers of SAD are thought to produce too much melatonin, causing them to feel sleepy, while a lack of sunlight may affect their body's production of serotonin, resulting in a low, depressed mood.
That SAD is linked to low sunlight levels seems to be demonstrated by research that has compared winter depression in places with high levels of sunlight compared to those where the sunlight level is low. One study showed that SAD was less common in Florida which has high light levels in winter (only 1.4% of the populace were diagnosed with SAD) compared to New Hampshire (9.7% of the populace were diagnosed with SAD) where the winter light levels are much lower. Dogs also produce the hormones melatonin and serotonin, and it is suggested that they too could suffer from an imbalance during winter resulting in doggy SAD.
The Symptoms of SAD
In humans, the symptoms of SAD include a persistent low mood, feeling like you have no energy, sleeping more than usual, losing interest in everyday activities and craving carbohydrates.
When owners were questioned about their pets' behaviour over the winter months, they reported similar symptoms. Dogs seemed lethargic, sleepy, lacked interest in playing and seemed to be hungrier. Professor of psychology, Stanley Coren, noticed such changes in his own dogs:
"Today my three dogs are lying around like lumps. They show little motivation to do anything, and Dancer, the oldest of the group (and the most predictable) even shows little enthusiasm when it comes to barking at the postman. My usually alert dog arrives at the door well after the mail has already been dropped into the box and the postman has already descended the stairs and is halfway back to the street. Even my grabbing the leashes and preparing for a walk doesn't seem to bring a lot of joy to my pets. Furthermore, other than sleeping for many more hours than is customary each day, the only thing that my dogs seem willing to do is to bump my leg with their noses and whimper—a sure sign that they are begging for a treat."
Coren speculated that his dogs were suffering from a canine version of SAD, as their symptoms appeared so similar. His thoughts are echoed by the owners who responded to the surveys conducted by the PDSA and Forthglade. Elaine Pendlebury from the PDSA felt the results of their research indicated that many pets suffer from depression in winter: "According to our poll, some pets display similar symptoms of the human disorder, SAD, which include fatigue, depressed mood and lack of energy."
Could There Be Other Reasons for Doggy Winter Blues?
Though recent research has hinted that dogs can suffer SAD, not everyone is convinced that is necessarily the case. When certified animal behaviour consultant Steve Dale was asked if he thought dogs might suffer SAD, he responded, “The definitive answer is . . . maybe. Nobody knows for sure.”
While dogs share the same brain chemistry as humans and thus, theoretically, could suffer the same effects of a lack of sunlight, whether that is actually what is happening is another matter. Dale suggests that what owners are perceiving as doggy depression is actually their canine pals reflecting their own low mood: “Pets’ moods mirror our moods. If we’re moody around the house all day, cats and dogs can pick up on this.”
Veterinarian Dr Patty Khuly is of a similar opinion:
"Our anthropomorphic sensibilities clearly make way for our observation of the quiet winter months as a time of depression - we get depressed, animals must get depressed too. But for them, resting more than usual, with less play and activity expended, might in fact be a way of storing energy, by way of augmented fat reserves, for the lean months of winter and the busy months to come... After all, evolution has favoured those animals that can most efficiently store energy through these lean winter months ... even if modern convenience has changed food distribution."
Equally, dog owners who suffer from SAD might misinterpret their pet's apparently similar symptoms, which are really the dog reacting to their owners' behaviour changes. That it could be us, rather than the low sunlight of winter, causing our pets' seasonal blues is further suggested by research by PitPat, who produce pedometers for dogs and use the feedback from their devices to study the activity levels of our pets.
Data taken from the PitPats worn by 20,000 dogs in the UK revealed that their exercise levels drop by as much as 20% in the winter. Forthglade's own survey, revealed similar statistics, with 56% of owners reporting they gave their dogs over 30 minutes of exercise per walk in the summer, but only 28% went for similar walks in the winter. The consequence of this lessening of exercise could include weight gain, increasing inactivity and behaviour issues, such as boredom.
Preventing Winter Blues
While the jury is out as to whether dogs really do suffer from SAD or whether they are reacting to us when they appear depressed over winter, the ways of helping them are the same and, as a bonus, may help human SAD sufferers who own dogs too.
Seasonal depression is linked to low light levels, so the obvious solution is to try to increase the amount of natural light a dog receives. This could be as simple as moving a dog's bed to a place where daylight shines brightly, beneath a skylight, for instance. Dr Karen Becker believes this a key way to help pets:
“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.”
Human SAD sufferers are advised to use natural lightboxes, which simulate daylight and can increase serotonin levels while reducing melatonin. Dogs may benefit from these boxes too, especially in the depths of winter when daylight is minimal. Also known as light therapy boxes, they come in a range of prices to suit most budgets and are a convenient way to help dogs (and people) feel more energised in winter.
Getting outside with the dog is good for both your pet and yourself. Even when the weather is bad aim for a minimum half-hour walk and encourage your pet to be active during it. If you have a dog that dislikes the cold or wet, then buying a coat or even a doggy wet suit will help them to enjoy walkies.
Exercise is a well-established natural mood stimulant. Even a brisk walk can alleviate feelings of depression, meaning daily walks with the dog are going to be good for both of you. While it is not always convenient, walking during daylight hours in winter is better than walking at night, so that your pooch can get the benefit of natural sunlight. For some people who have to walk their dogs before or after work, this may not be possible, but if you can this will certainly help your pet.
Mental activities, such as trick training or playing with toys, can help improve a pet's mood. There are lots of puzzle games out there for dogs, along with food toys such as Kongs. Even chewing on a meaty bone can be a good mood stimulant for dogs, as it releases feel-good endorphins.
However, the best games are ones that are played with a person and get the dog interacting. It might be teaching them a new command or having a great game of tug. One really fun game is to hide treats around a room, and then have your dog search them out. Encouraging your dog and getting excited when they succeed will further boost their enjoyment.
Interacting with your dog is a great way to keep you both happy and makes the dark months of winter fly by quicker. So get outdoors, get moving and enjoy the winter sunlight, your dog will thank you for it.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.