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SAD - How the Winter Blues Affects Your Dog

By: Alex Lieber

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After the joyous glow of the holiday season ends, the festive lights come down, the tree is stored or discarded – and we wait for some hopeful sign of spring through the gray months of January, February, and March, the winter blues can set in.

Many of us get the winter blues while waiting for warmer temperatures and sunny skies to return. Some of us mope around the house, whining, and making nuisance of ourselves with our restlessness.

Others get seriously depressed to the point where daily activities are difficult to perform. If these feelings are deep enough, the condition is called "seasonal affective disorder" or "SAD."

SAD is a disorder different from "the blahs," those moments when we feel generally down. Although not fully understood, SAD is though to be caused by a lack of bright light affecting hormonal balances. Affected people may have bouts of unexplained crying, desire for sweets, excessive fatigue, lethargy, depression, anxiety, and mood swings.

Do our dogs suffer from the same malaise? Probably not. While they do get depressed, dogs aren't known to suffer from SAD. More likely, your dog is mirroring your own feelings, explains Dr. Nick Dodman, professor and the Director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

For instance, some of the search and rescue dogs at the World Trade Center site got depressed because they picked up on the feelings of their human handlers, who were faced with a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.

The dogs were also at risk for depression because they were eager to succeed. They were trained to find survivors, and failure to do so was upsetting. To combat the sense of failure, human handlers "hid" so the dogs could "find" them. This boosted the dogs' confidence and self-esteem.

Dogs do have a hormonal response to the change in seasons. For instance, they shed their coats in spring and fall. But Dodman says it's a stretch to say that dogs experience the winter blues themselves.

Dogs do seem to be prone to cabin fever, like people. And even worse for them, they are not as entertained as us by watching old reruns or rented movies. But they do like exercise, which is the best tonic for winter blues for people and pets.

Dogs also are known to grieve the loss of companions, human or animal (to learn more about this phenomenon, see the story Do Dogs Grieve). Grieving dogs may show the clinical signs of depression or separation anxiety.

The clinical signs of depression include the following symptoms:

  • Lack of energy and interest
  • Absence of play
  • Loss of appetite
  • Reduced social interactions
  • Increased daytime sleeping
  • Nighttime restlessness
  • Weight loss or weight gain

    It is very important to note that ill dogs or dogs that have ingested poison will often appear depressed. If you see your dog suffering from the above symptoms, have him checked out by a veterinarian to rule out any physical cause.

    But if your dog just seems a little down or sad, consider how you've been feeling. Because dogs are so attuned to our emotions and body language, it's likely they pick up on our feelings and act accordingly, notes Dodman. Not knowing what's amiss, dogs may become anxious and clingy, especially if they are closely bonded with their owners.

    So if you see your dog acting a little out of sorts, maybe you've both been cooped up inside a little too long. If weather permits, go outside for a healthy run or some play. Aerobic exercise is the best thing you can do to boost you both out of winter's doldrums.

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