Some people who feel significantly down during certain times of the year may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression.
But have you ever noticed that your normally bright-eyed, bushy-tailed dog has run down or shows other signs of dejection at certain times of the year? Could Man’s Best Friend Also Have SAD?
Newsweek asked the experts if dogs can get SAD and if seasonal changes can affect your pet’s mood.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that manifests itself through its recurring seasonal pattern. SAD is characterized by “significant changes in your mood and behavior” during a change of season. Symptoms of SAD that last about four to five months each year include those associated with major depression, says the NIMH.
Some symptoms of major depression include loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, trouble sleeping, low energy levels, feeling hopeless, difficulty concentrating, and depression almost every day.
In most cases, SAD takes the form of “winter depression,” where symptoms appear in late fall or early winter before going away in spring and summer.
A puppy laying on a pillow.
WebSubstance via iStock / Getty Images Plus
Dogs and emotions
There is no doubt that dogs are incredibly astute and sensitive beings, with the ability to sense emotions and read human expressions.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) says previous studies have shown that dogs combine hearing and vision to match happy and angry human faces with happy and angry sounds.
Researchers have found that dogs can distinguish the positive sound of laughing from the negative sound of crying. The dogs were more excited and stimulated by the negative sounds than by the positive ones.
A 2018 study published in Scientific Report, a peer-reviewed online journal published by Nature Research, showed that dogs can only determine human emotions with their ears (at least for happiness, fear, and sadness). You use the right hemisphere for processing negative emotions and the left for positive emotions.
A 2016 study published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters, an online peer-reviewed journal, found that dogs can use information from various senses to detect emotions in humans, which the study found to be an ability that has never been observed outside of humans before.
Do dogs feel sad?
The short answer? Yes and no. Speaking to Newsweek, the AKC’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Jerry Klein that dogs can certainly get depressed and anxious. There have been reports of depression and loneliness in dogs following the loss of an owner or “roommate” of their pack, be it a human or another animal, and a change in their normal routine, Klein said.
“But whether dogs get ‘sad’ or not is a little less certain,” Klein told Newsweek.
Klein said that from a strictly scientific point of view, there is no “strong evidence” that dogs feel what humans would classify as sadness. “Dogs live more in the moment and don’t have the ‘confidence’ or inclination to think inside like humans do.”
In an interview with Newsweek, Dr. Jose Arce, the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), shared Klein’s thoughts and stated that we don’t know if dogs are as sad as humans. However, dogs can definitely experience negative emotional states such as stress, anxiety, and depression.
Klein also noted that there is an argument that when dogs experience sadness, it is usually short-lived.
A puppy seen on a bench.
Firn via iStock / Getty Images Plus
Can dogs get sad?
AVMA’s Arce told Newsweek, “There’s no evidence that dogs, like humans, have seasonal affective disorder.”
AKC’s Klein said that until recently there had been no official diagnosis of SAD in any animal because there was no model for it. However, recent studies on hamsters and grass rats could show that seasonal changes can also negatively affect animals.
“Hamsters and rats became depressed when they were exposed to less sunlight. The study found that the chemistry of the rodents’ brains changed. The hippocampus (area of the brain) shrank, which is believed to be the cause of depression. Said Klein.
Although the study was not conducted directly on dogs, it suggests that there is a possibility that dogs may be affected by SAD and that animals may experience changes in brain chemistry and mood during periods of shorter days and less light, the chief veterinary officer said of the AKC.
“A more real possibility is that SAD indirectly affects dogs because their owners behave and feel depressed during times of less light,” says Klein.
Vets at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a UK veterinary charity, also say “Pets can’t really suffer from SAD,” according to an October 2020 PDSA article.
The charity declares, “If they do [dogs] seem a little off in the dark months, that could just be because it’s us [the owners] we feel dejected and we naturally project our emotions onto our pets. “
Certified animal behavior consultant Steve Dale told PetMD, an animal health website with articles by veterinarians, in 2017 that pets’ moods mirror those of their owners.
“If we’re moody around the house all day, cats and dogs can notice,” said Dale.
Dale also said that if dogs appear to pass out during the winter months, it could potentially be an indication of boredom, as they naturally engage in fewer outdoor activities in the colder months.
Dr. Karen Becker, an inclusive and wellness vet, told PetMD in 2017 that some dogs also sleep more and have less energy in the winter. This begs the question of whether her symptoms are due to their owners being less active and preoccupied with their pets, “rather than true seasonal depression,” she said at the time.
A small dog in front of a window.
Eva Blanco via iStock / Getty Images Plus
Influence of daylight on the mood of the dog
Dale explained that humans and dogs share many of the same brain chemistries, such as how the hormones melatonin and serotonin are affected by daylight. An increase in daylight causes the brain to produce more melatonin and less serotonin, and both changes can negatively affect mood.
Therefore, Dale stated that it is entirely possible that dogs can get SAD, but there may be other explanations as there is no way to objectively measure or diagnose SAD in pets.
Becker also said that reduced sunlight can lead to light responsive alopecia (also known as seasonal flank alopecia) in dogs.
Becker told PetMD that scientists believe the condition is due to a lack of sun exposure to the pineal gland, making dogs living in northern climates more affected than those in sunnier, southern climates.
Signs of depression in dogs
Klein, of the AKC, explains that signs of depression may include a loss of energy or interest in activities that one would normally enjoy, loss of appetite and a change in posture (a lowered head or tail) can also be noticed.
Klein cautioned that it is extremely important that any dog showing signs of behavioral or appetite change always be evaluated by a veterinarian to rule out an underlying medical problem or pain. A medical condition would show the same symptoms, so owners shouldn’t assume that these changes are solely due to depression.
Other signs to look out for that could indicate your dog is experiencing negative emotional states like depression and anxiety include not engaging with other family members, whimpering or howling, aggression, and changes in sleeping patterns, said Arce of AVMA opposite Newsweek.
Arce also emphasized the importance of speaking to a veterinarian if owners notice such behavioral changes. If the cause of these symptoms is behavioral, your veterinarian may recommend ways to help your dog. such as “behavior modification, environmental enrichment, and the use of drugs developed to treat depression or anxiety in dogs”.
Dr. Leslie Sinn, a certified professional dog trainer and diplomat from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB), told the AKC in April that an underlying medical condition or chronic pain can trigger symptoms of depression.
“In general, if a dog slows down or refuses to get involved, especially if there isn’t a life-changing event, I’d bet large sums of money that it was medical or pain-related,” she told the AKC.
What to do when your dog is sad
Aside from the aforementioned contacting your veterinarian, Klein recommends increasing your exposure to the sun by getting up a little earlier and exercising more outdoors. Exercise and activity are also great cures for boredom for both you and your dog, he added.
Arce explained that dogs are creatures of habit, and the change in seasons often leads to routine changes – darker, colder days can mean shorter walks or less frequent trips to the dog park than the warmer months.
“This interruption in their routine, combined with less physical and mental exercise, could lead to signs of depression in dogs during the cold winter months,” he said.
The AVMA President noted that owners can still provide “the emotional security and security of a consistent routine” by replacing warmer weather activities with other ways for their dogs to play, explore, and connect with them indoors . This could include spending time on indoor games, encouraging foraging with puzzle toys or sniffing mats, or learning some new dog tricks. “
The use of artificial sun lamps is often viewed as a treatment for people with SAD, but Klein stated that there is no evidence that this works in dogs.
A dog sagged, one of its paws held a person in its hand.
sanjagrujic via iStock / Getty Images Plus