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Help your pet beat the winter blues

As the days grow short and the cold weather sets in, some of us notice changes in our moods. The winter blues—known clinically as Seasonal Affective Disorder or “SAD”—are experienced by as many as 10% to 20% Americans. But our pets are also vulnerable to the mood changes that often can accompany fall and winter. 

The basic science behind SAD, in both humans and animals, relies primarily on two hormones produced naturally by the body. Melatonin, a substance that regulates sleep cycles, is produced in greater amounts by the body during times of decreased sunlight. As the days shorten, the body produces more of the hormone, encouraging us (and our pets) to stay inside, cuddle up in a warm place, and rest. The other is serotonin, which affects mood, particularly the ability to experience pleasure. Serotonin is secreted in smaller amounts during the winter months when light is less abundant.

SAD can manifest in pets as sluggishness, loss of appetite, disinterest in play, and occasionally in behaviors such as compulsive over-grooming. So, what can you do to help your pets stave off the winter blues? Here are a few tips that may help…

1. Make the best of the daylight you have. 
Since the production of both melatonin and serotonin responds to daylight, try to give your pet as much natural light as possible. Schedule walks during the sunny hours before work rather than in the evening when it’s dark. Also, you may want to move your pet’s bed nearer to a window or skylight to maximize the amount of daytime sunlight exposure. 

2. Invest in “full spectrum” lighting.
Seasonal Affective Disorder in animals is similar to that in humans, it responds to certain wavelengths of light. When natural light becomes scarce, you may augment it with artificial sources, which have been shown to blunt winter depression in people. Light boxes that emit “daylight” or “full spectrum light” are available for dogs as well as people, and it’s encouraged that the patient (the two or four-legged variety) spend at least 45 minutes a day with the light box in order to achieve a positive impact on mood. 

3. Encourage participatory play.
Play and exercise are in themselves a way to boost serotonin levels in the brain. If you can schedule some time each day to play with your pet, you may notice an improvement in their mood, interest level, and appetite. If you plan on traveling during the holidays, consider where your pet will be staying. Pets that are crated for extended periods may have more severe depressive symptoms. If you’re boarding your pet while you’re away, try to find a kennel where your pet can have playtime with handlers and other animals.

4. Try a Little Pampering.
We all enjoy a home cooked meal, and even your pet could use a break from the kibble and canned food. If your budget allows, try cooking a meal for your pet as a special treat. Supplementing your pet’s diet with Omega-3 fatty acids can also help to boost their mood. If your dog or cat is naturally eating less, adjust portions accordingly, but keep kibble available.

5. Change the Scents around the House. 
Animals are very sensitive to smell, and a new stimulus can help pets avoid the blues. Toys containing treats or catnip have a way of boosting interest in even lethargic animals. Switch it up and offer different toys or aromatic treats at different times. Like us, our pets welcome a break from the same old same old.

Hopefully with these simple tips, you and your pet will have a happier and more active holiday and winter season!

Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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