SAD is the perfect acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder. The winter blues or cabin fever can sap your energy, increase your appetite, and bring on a desire to cuddle under a blanket with your pet and sleep the winter away. In the Midwest where I live, winters can be cold, cloudy, windy, dreary and snowy. Being cooped up inside can cause some people to develop symptoms of SAD, and the farther you live from the equator the more prone you are to experiencing this disorder. Pets can also be affected by a lack of sunshine and shorter daylight hours, and can suffer from seasonal affective disorder.
In Alaska, winter months are cold and dark with very little sunlight throughout the day. The Plains states, the Midwest, areas in New England and Canada also have lower levels of light during the winter months. Studies have shown that people who live in these regions have higher incidents of developing SAD compared to just 2% of people living in Florida. Changes in two hormones, melatonin and serotonin, can cause people with seasonal affective disorder to crave comfort food, overeat, feel tired or lethargic, and experience mood changes, anxiety and weight gain. These are the same symptoms seen in dogs, cats and other animals with SAD.
One of the top veterinary charities in the United Kingdom conducted a survey of pet owners and found that 43% noticed a lack of energy in their pets; 59% said their dog or cat slept longer than usual; and 47% said their pets wanted more attention. Owners also reported that their pet seemed more fatigued and depressed. Boxers, Airedale Terriers, French Bulldogs and Bulldogs, as well as a few other breeds, may also experience seasonal alopecia that causes hair loss and darkening skin in the flank area which, like SAD, is due to a lack of sunlight.
Dogs can be more than just a loving family member. They contribute in many ways just by being a part of the household. They can even be of special service or be a therapy dog to people who have medical issues or certain limitations in function. One of the conditions they can help their human companions with is depression.
Dogs give unconditional love while asking for very little in return. Their love is uncomplicated and adds no stress on that level to an already depressed person who has very little of themselves to give. A dog can also sense that their human family member is in a less than functional emotional or physical condition, and be concerned and protective. If relationships with family members or friends are strained and causing more anxiety for the person dealing with depression, the simple love of a dog can be soothing to overtaxed nerves and feelings.
Depression often causes lessened physical activity and no motivation to do things. The smallest physical task often becomes overwhelming. It is hard to even get up and move around a little when a person is battling depression. Having a dog to care for and love may be one way to find just enough motivation to move around the house to feed, play with and care for the dog.
We enrolled our new dog in a group training class and the experience has been eye-opening. The class is filled with all kinds of dogs and all kinds of people. Some dogs catch on to the commands immediately, while others take a long time to learn what’s expected of them. One gal is having a hard time with her dog. She told the trainer that her dog acts crazy at home too, and she’s sure her dog is mentally ill. The comment stimulated a class discussion about whether animals can actually be mentally ill.
According to the University of Melbourne’s research department, the answer is yes. Dr. Gabrielle Carter, a faculty member of the University’s Veterinary Science department, specializes in animal behavior. Not only is Dr. Carter an expert in her field but, because this is a relatively new area of study, she is an advocate and is working hard to increase awareness of mental illness in pets.
Dr. Carter explains that even though there are tremendous dissimilarities in different mammals, their biological systems, brains and nervous systems share similarities. She reasons that if humans are known to have mental illness based in altered brain function, then it is sensible to expect the same holds true for other animals.
Mental illness in different animals manifests in different ways. For example, dogs may suffer from noise phobias, separation anxiety and aggression. Cats may compulsively over-groom themselves and spray inappropriately.
Through behavioral therapies and in this case, medication, Dr. Carter recently helped a dog that had inexplicably developed a fear of her own backyard. The dog wouldn’t go into the yard she had once loved. If she was forced into the yard, she would desperately try to escape. The dog’s mental issues got worse; she became acutely fearful of anything unfamiliar, developed generalized anxiety issues and extreme noise phobias. It got to the point where the dog spent most of her time cowering in her owner’s bedroom.
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