The Winter Blues Can Also Affect Our Furry Friends

by Jeannette McDougall

Perhaps you’ve felt it before, that lack of motivation, irritability or downright depression that can be associated with the winter. Some refer to it as ‘cabin fever,’ others more properly term it the ‘winter blues.’ Regardless of what you decide to dub it, there’s no doubt that in the dead of winter it’s common to start feeling like there’s just something missing. In some cases this can even progress to full scale depression. It can be easy to consider this a disorder that just affects people but the truth is your dog or cat may also be suffering and unable to tell you.

SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Sure, you might realize you’re feeling ‘sad’ but did you know this is a medical acronym with a powerful meaning that can not only affect you but your dog and cat as well? 

SAD stands for seasonal affective disorder and is a form of depression that happens during the same season each year. In the majority of cases this occurs in fall and then continues through winter. There are very few who report being affected with seasonal depression in the spring or the beginning of summer but it can also occur.

In people the symptoms often will start out mild and then as the season progresses they will grow more severe. Some of the symptoms people will suffer from when living with SAD or winter depression are: growing levels of anxiety, growing levels of hopelessness, secluding themselves from society, odd sleeping patters (very little or quite a bit), lethargy, depression, heavy limbs, weight gain or weight loss, low levels of concentration, food cravings and lack of interest in favored activities.

Recently there have been many studies that are indicating dogs and cats suffer from SAD as well. Without the ability to easily communicate their discomfort it is hard to judge just how severe this can become in our four-legged partners.

Current Known Causes Of SAD

Here are factors that are known to specifically trigger the disorder: 

Low Levels Of Melatonin:
Seasonal changes have been known to disturb the critical balance of melatonin, a hormone that naturally occurs in cats, dogs and people. This hormone is critical for normal patterns of sleep as well as normal moods.   

Low Levels Of Serotonin
Serotonin is a natural chemical in the brain and is a neurotransmitter. It is important for mood stabilization. When there are reduced levels of sunlight there is also a fall in the levels of serotonin which can lead to depression.   

Circadian Rhythm Disruption
Circadian rhythms are biological processes displayed over a 24 hours period of time. There have been scientific studies showing there are longer ranging circadian rhythms; going for weeks, seasonal, yearly and in correspondence to the tides. They have been observed naturally occurring in nearly every biological element from fungi, to plants and animals as well as humans. More importantly, these rhythms are closely tied to the environment, specifically the sun.

Signs Your Pet May Be Suffering

If you’re sensing your dog may be a little off and are starting to figure out it could be from the lack sun light, you’re probably on the right track. Consider these top signs your dog is suffering from depression.

Seasonal Flank Or Light Responsive Alopecia-

Some breeds of dogs are highly prone to this problem and it is linked to the pineal gland. It is thought that this gland that is located at the brain’s base suffers when there is a lack of sunlight. This gland is also responsible for releasing melatonin. You may notice your dog has a loss of hair over the flanks and hindquarters, generally in a symmetrical pattern. It may be hereditary and it doesn’t appear to inflict one sex more than another. Vet’s that see this prescribe one of two treatments: increased exposure to the sun or melatonin supplements.  As stated above, there is a link to lowered levels of melatonin from lowered levels of sun light.

Weight Gain Or Loss

Your dog may seem to constantly scrounge for food. A dog that was otherwise good around your trash may incessantly knock the can over and dig into your leftovers. They may eat their food so fast they have even start to choke on it. On the other hand (and often more likely) you will notice your dog has a loss of interest in food, doesn’t beg as they normally would and may even leave kibble in the bowl.


Just like people suffering from depression, you may see your dog less interested in playing. They may not pick the ball up to greet you at the door, get excited when you grab their leash or pace in front of the door. You may even have to call repeatedly to get them to go outside at all.

Odd Sleeping Patterns

Another commonality of SAD between both people and dogs is the effect it has on sleeping patterns. This is related to the drop in serotonin. Your dog may pace the floor at night where he previously was content to sleep. He may instead log his down time in during the day. You will probably notice him sleeping a lot more and even in unusual places.

Lowered Interest In Socialization

With people suffering from depression they may not answer the phone, they may skip lunch dates and avoid friends. In your dog you can expect to see him testy when greeting other pets where before he was happy and social. He might not come to the door as often to greet you and when he does he could appear to be less excited.

Signs Your Cat Is Suffering From SAD

Your feline friends are just as prone to SAD. In fact, some may say even more so. Cats have been involved in many studies because of their ability to sleep for long periods of time. This is likely due to their levels of serotonin and melatonin; both key factors in depression.  If you’re concerned your cat may be suffering from SAD here are some symptoms you might notice:

Decreased Activity

While it is safe to say that cats sleep sound and often, a pet lover does have an idea of how much their cat sleeps. You will be able to notice if suddenly they seem to be sleeping much more than they were before. You might not be able to rouse them into playing with their favored toy or even get their interest in the catnip you have just brought home.

Avoidance Or Reclusive Behavior

It is true there are some cats that are very shy, hiding under the bed anytime someone new comes over. Most cats love to see their people and will expect some attention at different times. Whether your cat greets you at the door like a dog or waits until you’ve settled in with a good book to climb onto your lap, you know they have a standard routine. If your cat is off they are likely to be hiding even from you. They might sneak around, hiss crankily at you when you pet them or even bat your hand away.

Strange Behavior

If your cat has started spraying when you’ve had him for years and he’s never done this you might have a depressed kitty. Likewise he might start going outside of the litter box. These are often extremes but they are signs of SAD. In addition, your cat might start skulking around the house mewling. You give him food, his favorite treats and attention but to no avail. This is a likely sign of depression. Your normally happy, affectionate cat may turn crabby and hiss at you as well.

Change In Coat

Just like dogs suffering from alopecia, cats may also start losing their hair due to depression. You may notice that your cat is shedding much more than they used to. You could also see a lackluster coat though you’re still feeding the same high quality diet. Finally, you may notice that your cat is no longer bathing for hours in their favorite spot.

Suggested Treatment Or Remedy

If you take your dog or cat to the vet and express concern over depression there’s a good chance you’re going to leave with a prescription.  While this may or may not be the remedy to make your companion feel better there is a better option. You can find a cure that is completely natural, as well as effective without being quite so hard on your bank book or your friend’s health. One of the best ways to get your pet feeling better is to get them the sun they so desperately need.

If you have a dog or cat you have seen them lounging in the oddest spots just to soak up the rays of the sun. That is because they need this valuable light. It is also why many vets will tell you to get your dog out for walks more often or let your cat on the front porch. If you’re like many people you’re working a full time job and likely, very long hours. This may make getting your companion into the sun a lot more difficult.  If you’re tempted to leave the lights on for them it’s a good thought but regular lighting won’t provide the remedy you’re after. You need specialized lighting that is able to simulate the sun. The easiest way to find this is with full-spectrum lighting.

What Does Full-Spectrum Lighting Mean?

A full-spectrum light is one that simulates the natural sun. It is able to cover the entire electromagnetic spectrum all the way from the infrared through ultraviolet.  Most importantly it is able to give plants, animals and people the wavelengths necessary for proper health. Many people have been using these lights for years to get fantastic, natural growth from indoor plants. In the pet industry the lights have commonly been used for those keeping lizards and certain fish tanks because the value of the sun for these animals was already known.

Light As A Natural Cure

More and more doctors are suggesting full-spectrum light boxes for people who suffer from SAD. Getting the necessary light even in the dead of winter often helps to break up the depression by emulating the sun to induce proper circadian rhythms as well as elevating the natural chemicals in the body; serotonin and melatonin.  

More recently vets are starting to point in this direction for dogs and cats who are suffering from depression. Certainly getting a bulb from your pet store may seem an option but how do you keep your pet easily safe from it? If the bulb is too high they may not get the full potential of this remedy. If the bulb is too low they may be able to get close and burned or knock it over causing a fire hazard.

What Light Is Best?

In order to help your dog or cat shake their depression you should look into clinically tested and UV resistant box that puts out 10,000 lux of light . Then you can find an efficient and safe full-spectrum light that will restore your dog or cat’s natural body chemistry and rhythms so they will be able to live happy all year long. Once you have your light put some thought into setting it up.

If you have multiple pets it can be useful to have more than one light. They work well when placed near beds as it will help to encourage your pet to curl up near this remedy.  Make sure to emulate the natural day and night settings and don’t leave your full-spectrum light on all night long. This can actually work against the remedy you are after as it will serve to confuse your dog or cat’s natural rhythm. Once your pet has enjoyed the light for some time you’ll certainly notice a return to the happy companion you’ve always had.