Updated: Jan 6
The winter blues—AKA seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—is an inevitability for some of us. As the dim light of evening creeps earlier and earlier, you may notice a dip in your pet’s energy alongside your own. Fortunately, with just a little care and attention, you can help treat or outright avoid the effects of seasonal affective disorder on your pet.
What’s There to be SAD About?
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) In Pets
Let’s start with the basics. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a disruption to our circadian rhythm—which is to say, our internal 24-hour clock that tells us when to rest and when to wake. The diminishing daylight reduces the amount of serotonin (the happy hormone) our brains produce and consequently affects our mood. On the other hand, melatonin, a hormone produced during periods of darkness that affects our mood and sleep patterns, sharply increases and makes us feel listless and sleepy. The result is a lethargic melancholy: the harsh weather means we spend more time inside, but none of our hobbies seem to hold any interest. The desire to carb-load skyrockets, and nothing seems more compelling than a long, undisturbed sleep until you spot the early light of spring on the horizon.
While there haven’t been any studies yet that tell us with absolute certainty that our household pets suffer from seasonal affective disorder the same way we do, we know our pets have a circadian rhythm and can suffer from general depression. Furthermore, studies done to understand how shortened days affect the brain and behaviour in humans used rodents as test subjects; they discovered the rodents began to display more depressive-like responses as they were exposed to less and less daylight. From this, we can safely assume at least some correlation between the changing of the seasons, SAD, and our pets—or at least enough of a correlation to reasonably respond with treatment.
Be On the Lookout for Everyday Changes
Unfortunately, our pets cannot tell us directly when they’ve descended into the winter blues. If you suspect your pet is suffering from seasonal affective disorder, observe their behaviour closely, but refrain from initially trying to interpret the behaviour—that will come later. Our pets’ habits can change for many reasons, and it’s important not to jump to conclusions.
Start by understanding your pet’s day-to-day routine, and be aware if it abruptly changes: are they doing things they wouldn’t normally do, such as staying up all night or sleeping all day? Or not doing things they would normally do, like eating with gusto or showing excitement for walks and other play activities? Ask yourself, what happened around your home before these changes? Why would they react this way now? Context for these changes is essential: if everything else is normal and the only thing that’s changed in their life is the season, then SAD may be the answer.
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Products of Their Environment
“I don’t get SAD in the winter,” you might think. “Why would my pet?” Beyond the fact that everybody (and every animal) has differing brain chemistry, consider your pet’s environment during the day—and how your actions impact it.
We are all products of our environment, but we control their environment in particular. So while you may think your dog or cat is experiencing the same amount of light throughout the day as you, you could also be going into work where you spend your day outside or under bright artificial light. At the same time, you may have neglected to open the curtain to let in natural light before you left. Since SAD occurs when our circadian rhythm is upset, appropriate moderation of light is essential to mitigating the effects—and not all light is created equal. Even if you leave the lights on all day for your pet at home, it might just not be the right type of light!
The two main types of light that get mixed up in the prevention of SAD are daylight bulbs and full-spectrum bulbs. Oftentimes, the light from these bulbs looks the same to the naked eye—they’re both meant to mimic the appearance of the sun's natural light. Daylight bulbs may seem like the instinctual choice here, but it’s actually full-spectrum bulbs that will give you and your pet the full array of benefits of natural sunlight—including blue light, which decreases melatonin production.
These bulbs can be massively beneficial (and inexpensive) ways to combat the winter blues. The real deal, however, comes from specially made SAD lights. They can come in an assortment of sizes, from floor lamps to iPad-looking squares of light that can be easily arranged on desks or next to your pet’s bed. The theory with these lamps is you spend at least 15-45 minutes a day sitting in front of them—ideally in the morning—to give you a boost of energy and reset your circadian rhythm.
In the market for some light therapy? Here are some of the best SAD lamps available in Canada
Habits Maketh the Pet: Sticking To Your Normal Habits
Let’s say you’ve fully invested in new lights and bulbs for your home; your place now glows like noon in July even if you live in a moody basement suite, but your pet still wallows in the kind of funk primarily reserved for messy breakups. What’s up with that? If you live in rainy Vancouver or frigid Alberta (or anywhere else in Canada—let’s be honest, winter isn’t kind to us), you’re likely changing how often you take your pet outside; who wants to be in that kind of weather? (Okay, you skiing, snowboarding, mountain trekking folks—we know you’re the exception.)
When we change our behaviour, we risk changing our pet’s behaviour too. It’s possible they still aren’t feeling like their usual selves because they’ve got pent-up excess energy due to your willingness to become a hermit over the winter. You might also see this affecting their eating habits; if they’re not eating when you feed them at their usual time but instead hours later, it could be because they haven’t burnt off enough energy to build up an appetite. Alternatively, it could be your own mental state that is impacting them. Our pets can be natural empaths, so if you’re not feeling your best, be it from SAD, a cold, or just life in general, your pet could be feeding off your mood.
You are What You Eat, So Eat For Mental Health
The research is in: a healthy and balanced diet benefits your mental health! While the effects of SAD are directly related to the changing periods of light and dark throughout the day, having a solid foundation of physical health will reduce stress on your pet’s immune system that can slowly wane in the cold winter months.
While winter is associated with packing on the pounds, that’s not what we mean when we say you should be providing your pet with a balance of high-quality fats. Make sure your pet is getting a balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 from a variety of sources. In case you weren’t sure, Omega-3 is found in oily fish, and Omega-6 comes from poultry, leafy green vegetables, seeds and nuts, among other sources. In addition, a healthy gut system makes for a happy pet, so don’t neglect other supplements like pre and probiotics.
Creating a Winter Action Plan
This is one of those situations where it never hurts to be proactive, and the solutions can be easier than you think. If you’ve ever tried to avoid jet lag, then you know the importance of staying on a schedule.
1. Start a Routine:
Try and do activities with your pets at the same time you would normally—get them out for a walk in the morning when the sun is coming up, feed them at the same time, and so forth.
2. Daylight Exposure
Make sure you’re leaving them enough light during the day; if you have a pet who fares better with less light throughout the day to keep them calm, consider turning on a SAD lamp for them for 15-60 minutes in the morning. This will provide them with all the proper full-spectrum benefits while also keeping them calmer while you’re away.
3. Enrichment Activities They Can Do on Their Own
Ensure they have enough enrichment at home—for dogs, something to chew on, and for cats, something to scratch. These can be important sources of endorphins while your pet is left to their own devices.
4. Discover New Indoor Activities
While physical outlets are important—don’t neglect a good game of fetch with your dog or a dramatic feather wand battle with your cat—you can’t underestimate the importance of mental stimulation! When the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can employ a variety of methods to tire out your pets: try scent detection with your dogs (at least 3-4 rounds, and don’t forget to give them treats for finding all the smells!) or teach them new tricks. Cat’s can also learn tricks, and a catnip toy is likely to tucker them out quickly. Both cats and dogs can benefit from snuffle mats and puzzle toys too—studies have shown that 15 minutes of sniffing and foraging can be equivalent to over 30 minutes of outdoor exercise. That being said, don’t leave snuffle mats out unattended—bored pets might try and pull apart and eat the fabric strips.
5. Mindful Nighttime Routines
In the evenings, start turning off lights as the night advances to get your pet ready for bed, and be mindful of the blue light from your screens. As mentioned above, blue light decreases melatonin and makes it harder for you and your pet to fall asleep. (Maybe move them to another room if you’re dedicated to finish binging that series.)
Conquering the Winter Blues Season
It can be stressful and disheartening when our pets aren’t acting like themselves. While it might be tempting to immediately blame your pets’ mood change on seasonal affective disorder, remember not to jump to conclusions! SAD can be an easy fix, but you don’t want to overlook any other potentially serious underlying issues. Don’t be afraid to go into your vet if you notice any dramatic changes in their behaviour—it’s better to know for sure than be caught unaware.
For further reading, see our blog Top 7 Tips for Helping Your Pet Beat The Winter Blues