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Approximately 10 million Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder each year, as of data from 2019. Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is a type of depression related to the changing seasons, most often beginning in autumn. Less sunlight and shorter days trigger a biochemical imbalance in the brain, such as increased melatonin and decreased serotonin, that affects mood and behavior. With SAD being so common in humans, it's natural to wonder about our canine companions. So, can dogs suffer from seasonal affective disorder too? Find out here.
Although there is not much research on (or any sure way to measure and diagnose) SAD in pets, it's very possible it exists. For starters, humans and canines have similar brain chemistry and overlapping hormones, like serotonin and melatonin. This means that less sunlight and shorter days can have similar biochemical affects on our dogs as they do on us (more melatonin, less seratonin). These hormonal changes are one of the leading factors of SAD in humans and behavioral shifts such as lethargy, sleepiness, low appetite, depressed or disinterested mood, and more.
In addition, it's likely that dogs get general depression. This has been deduced by the fact that dogs can exhibit the symptoms (such as lethargy, disinterest, withdrawing, sleepiness, etc.) of depression plus that dogs respond positively to antidepressants.
Furthermore, more recent studies performed on hamsters and rats have demonstrated SAD can affect animals. The research found that being exposed to less sunlight caused depressive behaviors and even altered brain chemistry. In particular, the hippocampus shrank, which is known to be related to depression. Though the subjects were not dogs, this research demonstrates that SAD could, indeed, affect canines as well.
In more anecdotal evidence, owners report mood and behavioral changes in their pets during the winter months. In fact, around one third of U.S. pet parents say they observe shifts in mood and behavior during winter. That would make SAD pretty common. Symptoms observed by owners include:
This needs to be taken with a grain of salt, however, given it's subjective and based on human perception, rather than scientific research.
One theory beyond SAD for why our dog's mood shifts during winter has to do with us. Dogs pick up on and recognize our emotions, as demonstrated by research. So if you feel less peppy during the colder months, they may mirror that.
In addition, owners may be less active and energetic during winter, which can translate to boredom for their dogs. They aren't spending as much time outside as they do in the warmer months, leading to inadequate physical exercise and mental stimulation. And even when they do get outdoor activity, it's for shorter amounts of time. The duration of walks, trips to the dog park, playtime, fetch, scent tracking, etc. are often all shorter in winter.
Whether or not dogs truly suffer from SAD, there are several ways to keep your dog happy during winter. These include:
1. Getting outside as much as possible - take your winter walk during the brightest part of the day or wake up a little earlier to take advantage of the daylight. Even dim sunlight can help boost moods and the outdoors gives your dog physical exercise, mental stimulation and sometimes socialization.
2. Increasing light exposure indoors - move your dog's bed to a sunnier spot, keep blinds and shades open, and introduce artificial light through lamps that will mimic sunlight (this is most effective when your dog is awake).
3. Having fun indoors - provide playtime inside, which can be more physical (indoor fetch, chase, tug-of-war, etc.) or mental (puzzle toys, brain games, training practice).
4. Exercising more, even outdoors - exercise can increase seratonin levels, which can improve moods. There are plenty of winter activities that get you and your dog moving like walking, running and hiking.
5. Spending quality time together - carving out a little one-on-one time can help lift your dog's spirits by emphasizing the bond between you two. Try cuddling, giving them a massage or watching TV together.
Pro Tip: Avoid giving your dog vitamin D supplements. Although the supplement is helpful for humans suffering from SAD, too much vitamin D can be toxic to dogs. It can lead to fatal kidney disease and other health issues.
It's always a good idea to contact your vet if you notice behavioral changes that persist for several days and don't improve with any of the suggestions above. Many symptoms of potential SAD are also signs of other issues. It's best to get your dog checked out to ensure there are no underlying health conditions and receive the proper treatment for whatever is affecting your canine companion.