This is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also sometimes known as the winter blues or seasonal depression. While some people may feel a little off when the seasons change, those who suffer from SAD can sink into full-blown depression, complete with a lack of energy, major bouts of sadness and diminished or increased appetite. If you've noticed your dog displaying similar symptoms, you're not alone.
The People's Dispensary for Sick Animals conducted a survey and found that 40 percent of owners saw signs of SAD in their dogs during the winter months. Half of this number reported their dogs were sleeping longer and two-fifths said their pets' energy was lower overall. And dogs aren't the only animals affected. They also surveyed cat owners, one-third of which reported seeing the same symptoms.
One major factor that seems to cause SAD to come out in people and pets is the decreased amount of light we're exposed to in the winter. This can throw off hormone levels, which regulate our mood and sleep pattern. For one, our bodies produce more melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep, in the winter because it stays darker for longer. As a result, we're often sleepier, less energetic and less motivated.
In contrast, our bodies produce less serotonin in the winter — the "feel good" hormone. Lower levels of serotonin are proven to have a negative effect on animals and humans. You may notice you snack more in the winter, or in a dog's case, beg for table scraps more. This is your body trying to make up for lost serotonin. Eating comfort foods helps increase your levels but not in the healthiest of ways.
Dogs may also experience another side effect that humans do not — hair loss. According to Alice M. Jeromin, RPh, DVM, DACVD, lack of sunlight exposure can cause light responsive alopecia in certain breeds of dogs. She wrote, "Light responsive alopecia is logically more common in those areas of the country with dark winters such as the Midwest, the Plains states, parts of New England and Canada." The dog breeds that are known to be most affected are boxer, English bulldog, French bulldog, Airedale, Doberman pinscher, Bouvier des Flandres, Scottish terrier, shar-pei, Labrador retriever, giant schnauzer and Akita.
If your dog is displaying SAD symptoms and nothing seems to shake them, you can try increasing the amount of light to which your dog is exposed. This is the same treatment recommended for humans suffering from SAD because as mammals, light affects our melatonin and serotonin levels in the same way.
Obviously natural light is best, but if you live in a building that doesn't get a ton of light or have to work during the majority of daylight hours in the winter, you can purchase lightbulbs that mimic natural light rather inexpensively. Make sure they're labeled "full spectrum" or "daylight" bulbs to be truly effective.
Increasing light exposure will also help your pet's hair grow back if it suffers from light responsive alopecia. You can also talk to your vet about giving it a small dose of melatonin to further improve hair growth. And of course, play time and lots of cuddles never hurt.
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