Doggy Winter Blues

June 21st, 2016
Winter 1

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as the winter blues, is a real problem for humans — but can it affect our canine companions as well? Tim Falk reports.

Sometimes winter can be a thoroughly depressing time of year. The days are shorter, the temperature is freezing and dark-grey clouds seem to oppressively hang over every daylight hour. The active, outdoorsy lifestyle we’ve enjoyed throughout spring, summer and autumn is often replaced by laziness, lethargy, and an overwhelming desire to remain under at least one doona at all times. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), commonly referred to as the winter blues, is a proven type of depression in humans. It leads to a loss of energy, increased moodiness and ongoing feelings of depression or hopelessness, and is thought to be linked to the reduced hours of sunlight during winter.

But can this disorder with the very appropriate acronym affect our dogs as well? On an anecdotal level, plenty of dog owners have reported signs of depression in their canine companions during the winter months. In fact, you might have noticed some of them in your dog as well — lethargy, sadness and a general lack of interest in going out and socialising in the cold weather. While this might suggest that the winter blues may be a problem for our pooches, there’s not yet enough scientific evidence to support this hypothesis.

“There is currently little research on depression in dogs,” says Dr Trepheena Hunter, veterinary behaviourist at The Lost Dogs’ Home, “although some veterinary behaviour specialists around the world are now considering this as a diagnosis. It is difficult to assess mood in a dog, however there are some cases where the pattern of behaviour fits a diagnosis of depression. There has been one survey done in the UK in which a number of pet owners reported signs of depression during winter months, but there has not been any similar survey or research done in Australia.”

With such a small body of work to draw on, it’s not yet possible to say whether SAD is a real problem for dogs. In any case, given that the disorder in humans is thought to be connected to the reduced hours of daylight, SAD is associated much more with other parts of the world where mid-winter days are much shorter than in Australia.

“Working with dogs in the Melbourne winter I haven’t come across signs of SAD,” Dr Trepheena explains. That said, even in the middle of a cold Melbourne winter we receive a good eight hours of sunlight and SAD is more typically associated with length of sunlight rather than temperature.”

Winter 2

Feeling blue?
Putting diagnoses and acronyms aside for the moment, there’s another question that needs answering: why might my dog be feeling down during the winter months? Despite the fact that depression is not a common diagnosis in dogs, every dog owner will recognise the tell-tale signs that their pooch is not quite feeling its usual self.

“During winter the light levels are lower, owners are less active, the weather is cooler and all of this can combine to make a dog feel discontented,” says dog trainer Brydie Charlesworth. “Lethargy, lack of appetite and sleeping more are common symptoms. Your pet may be less enthusiastic than normal about everyday activities.”

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