How to Help Your Dogs & Cats Cope With Seasonal Depression

There's no verdict if our dogs and cats hit a seasonal slump, but there are some tips to perk them up if the winter blues strike.

Published February 14, 2024
Cat looking out a window

As a canine behaviorist, I believe our dogs — and even our cats — can experience seasonal depression. It's boring, cold, and dreary in the winter months. There's nothing to do; you and your pet are both stuck inside most of the time, and if you live up North like I do, it seriously feels like there's no sun for months at a time. But don't just take my word for it; let's explore the science along with how veterinarians feel about the issue. 

Related: Is My Cat Depressed?

What Is Seasonal Depression, Anyway?

According to a study published by Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, "Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterized by depressive episodes during winter that are alleviated during summer and by morning bright light treatment." In other words, seasonal depression, commonly known and joked about as "SAD," often involves periods of depression during the winter months, with the primary "cure" for us humans being bright light and the summer months. 

Personally, I'm not a fan of the winter months and do experience seasonal depression, and I have noticed my dog gets more "blah" in the winter, too. I have a SAD light that I use to grab my daily dose of "sunshine," which could possibly benefit my dog as well. Even though it isn't real sunlight, it makes you feel like it's bright outside, even when it's gray and gloomy. Hopefully, there will be research in the future on whether this could benefit our pets, too. 

Do Dogs and Cats Experience Seasonal Depression?

Sad dog lying on the couch next to woman

Right now, there's no solid research that tells us whether dogs and cats get seasonal depression, but just because we don't have studies on it doesn't mean it's not happening. It just means scientists haven't specifically looked into this issue much yet.

One study on sled dogs does provide us with a clue, though. The study checked out how the amount of sunlight sled dogs get affects their melatonin levels, which could tell us something about how seasons impact them.

The research, published in Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, found "the peak in melatonin production was prolonged in high latitude dogs (65 degrees N), compared with lower latitude dogs (45 degrees N). Dogs at both latitudes show a reduction in peak melatonin levels with exercise, and winter melatonin levels in both locations were higher than in the summer." In other words, melatonin levels during the winter were higher than in the summer for dogs regardless of location, which could explain why our pets seem to be bigger couch potatoes in the winter season.

Need to Know

Melatonin is the hormone that helps our dogs (and us) sleep and, according to the ASPCA, may also be used to help pets with sleep disorders.

Changes That Come With the Seasons May Play a Role

According to Intermountain Pet Hospital, "many pet owners report less energy, more lethargy, and sleepiness in their dogs during the winter. This is closely related to the shorter winter daytime hours, meaning that (like you), your dog is producing more melatonin than during the summer, causing tiredness, sadness, changes in eating, and behavioral changes."

Quick Tip

It can be harder to spot boredom in our cats than our dogs. Check out some subtle signs of boredom in your feline family member.

Metabolic and Hormonal Changes

"When the days are longer, during summer and spring, the brain signals for a smaller appetite and lower metabolism rate. It assumes that there will be more time for feeding because the day is long," according to Circle of Life Veterinary Hospital.

They explain, "When the temperatures fall, during fall and winter, the body’s energy demands increase. The body needs more nutrients to maintain body temperature. The brain signals for slow metabolism and an appetite increase." So, that could lead us to question whether our dogs are moving slower because they're depressed or just because biology is telling them they can.

Lack of Outdoor Time

The Kennel Club of the U.K. notes that other factors might be at play. "Through the winter — especially the long, wet winters we have been seeing in recent years — it can be hard to give dogs the exercise they need. Dark mornings and evenings and muddy, wet walks can make taking the dog out seem like a chore. As a result, many dogs are getting less exercise or fewer walks than usual and aren’t getting to do the things they truly love."

I know that in my household, there is definitely less time spent outside in the winter months. If it's snowing, in the single digits, and windy, no one wants to go outside. Seriously, not even our dog wants to go outside! He walks out, goes potty, and he's back in the house as fast as he can. In my professional and personal opinion, this could absolutely result in depression. 

Quick Tip

Indoor cats who are used to going outside to their catio that's shut down during the winter can benefit from indoor exercise disguised as play time

Less Movement Means More Pain

The Circle of Life Veterinary Hospital made a really good point about arthritis, which could certainly cause dogs to be on the grumpy side, especially if they're in their senior years. "Cold weather makes arthritis symptoms more aggressive. The joints, in particular, become inflamed and stiff. Arthritis probably aggravates because the pet does not exercise enough."

I don't know about you, but when I'm in pain or not feeling well, it's hard for me to get going, even if my mind is ready for a marathon. Our pets seem to feel the same way. 

How to Help Your Pet Cope

Our furry friends can't exactly spill the beans when they're feeling down or having a tough time in the winter. Likewise, it's next to impossible to determine whether our dogs and cats or depressed, or just suffering from issues like boredom and increased pain.

Make Your Vet Your First Call

If you notice your dog or cat acting differently in the winter months, a quick trip to the veterinarian is always your first step.  It's better to be safe than sorry. Plus, if they're seeming super off, you'll already have medical clearance should you decide to make an appointment with a behaviorist to get them on the right track. 

Light Therapy

That light I was talking about earlier in the article — that's what Fear-Free Happy Homes' first recommendation is. If you've never used one, it is unbelievable how much something so simple helps. All you need to do is find somewhere to put it and plug it in. Then, viola! It's spring already — kind of. While we don't know if our pets experience seasonal depression or not, some extra sunshine doesn't hurt. 

And there's a bonus — if the light lifts your spirits, it's likely to have a positive effect on your pets, too. Our pets pick up on how we're feeling, so if we start feeling better, chances are they will, too. 

Quick Tip

If your health insurance doesn't cover light therapy, City Vet shared that "full-spectrum light bulbs designed for pets can simulate natural sunlight and help compensate for the lack of sun during winter months." 

Open the Curtains

Cat Lying on Owner

City Vet recommends you "position pet beds, blankets, or cushions near windows that receive direct sunlight. Your pets can lounge and soak up the rays indoors." There may not be a ton of sun, but when the rays do come, they can shine through onto your pet this way. 

Schedule Special Play Time

Winter can be tough on everyone, but a little bit of extra playtime can be a great trick. Check out our boredom-busters for dogs and enrichment for indoor cats, then add at least a 15-minute gentle play session with your pet each day. It's great bonding for you both — and can help pull everyone out of the winter blues.

Consider Ways to Add Some Novelty and Exercise

Whether or not your pet is suffering from seasonal depression, winter often means more sleep and less exercise. Finding additional ways to exercise your dog, like going to an indoor dog park, can be a great way to stimulate the natural production of serotonin in your dog's brain. Similarly, getting your cat to explore new things in their environment — instead of the same old walls and furniture — is known to reduce stress in cats and increase calm behavior. So consider changing up your routine and environment with things that help your pet play, explore, and move more in the winter. 

Quick Tip

Make sure you keep your dog's paws protected in the winter months so they don't soak up chemicals or become frostbitten. 

Help Your Own State of Mind

Pets pick up on a lot, and there's a good chance that if you're more depressed and less active during the winter, your pet will soak that in. At a minimum, we do know our vibes are contagious to our pets. If you're feeling anxious, depressed, and just "blah" during the winter season, consider ways to improve your own wellbeing and see how your pet reacts. You might just help you both feel better!

Bottom Line... We Can't Read Our Pets' Minds

We don't know for sure if our pets experience seasonal depression, but a number of other pet experts and I believe they do. While we wait for studies and science to confirm this theory, we don't have to leave our pets in the dark. Consider these simple, small changes that help increase access to light, exercise, and play during the cold months of the year. After all, a sprinkle of joy and a dash of playtime can brighten even the gloomiest of days for our beloved companions — and us!

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How to Help Your Dogs & Cats Cope With Seasonal Depression