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Happy Tails for SAD Pets

Can seasonal affective disorder affect our pets? It turns out the answer is yes. And the urge to eat more, exercise less, and act a little grumpy is not a uniquely human experience.
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Does anyone else miss daylight? Between getting up before dawn to hit the gym before getting my son off to school and working late at the Petplan offices, I feel like I haven't had a date with the sun in ages. While I am generally too busy to let the winter blues truly sink in, there are two members of my family who seem to be feeling it most: my dogs, Wellington and Montgomery.

Can seasonal affective disorder affect our pets? It turns out the answer is yes. And the urge to eat more, exercise less, and act a little grumpy is not a uniquely human experience (just ask Wellington, who is burrowed under the bed covers as I write this).

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a chemical imbalance in the brain linked with low levels of light. When you're constantly cloaked in darkness during December through February, your body produces more melatonin, the hormone responsible for that can't-get-out-of-bed feeling. Scientists now believe this process may affect our pets in the same way, and a recent survey of pet parents in the U.K. found anecdotal evidence that supports the theory.

Pet parents who completed the poll reported that 43 percent of pets have less energy, 59 percent of pets sleep for longer periods and 47 percent of pets demand more affection during the winter months. Other behaviors linked to the disorder include soiling inappropriately, barking excessively, aggression and diminished interest in toys.

Clearly, our pets experience sensitivities to the scarcity of sunlight this time of year. So how can a concerned pet parent perk up a pup's spirits? Here are some tips for keeping those dreaded blues at bay.

Sweat It Out

You're probably not surprised to read that exercise is one of the best ways to go from listless to blissful, but playing fetch in 30-degree weather hardly tops anyone's to-do list. Luckily, you don't need to head outdoors to give your pup a sweat session. Play a game of living room tug-and-toss. Hide treats throughout the house and encourage your dog to sniff them out. Or spend 20 minutes trying a new training tip to give your pet's mind and body a challenge. In fact, teaching an old dog new tricks can benefit you both; he gets to enjoy some activity, and you get a better-trained pet!

Worship the Sun

On rare winter days when the sun is shining, encourage your pet to relax in the rays by moving his bed or blankie to a sunny spot on the floor, and give him a special treat there. The time he spends soaking in sunshine will warm him inside and out, and give him a hefty dose of mood-boosting vitamin D to boot.

Supplement the Serotonin

Just like humans, pets get a splash of feel-good serotonin from foods they eat; in fact, studies have shown a link between low levels of serotonin and aggression in some pets. To help your pet feel perky, add some slices of banana to his breakfast, or dish out an egg in his dinner. Both will provide a little pick-me-up kick of tryptophan (an amino acid that is an essential precursor to serotonin production), and will tickle the taste buds, too.

Go Toward the Light

Light therapy -- used for centuries to treat a variety of physical and mood-related disorders in people -- can also benefit our pets. A drug-free, holistic treatment with no side effects, light therapy has been shown to increase energy, decrease anxiety, enhance sleep and elevate mood. I recently learned of a Portland-based company called Pawsitive Lighting that manufactures light boxes for pets, and I love the idea -- and the company's founding principles. For those weeks-long stretches of gray days and perpetual darkness, light therapy can be a quick fix for a mopey pet's malaise.

Do Something Different!

While a tropical vacation with our pets would be wonderful, it's hardly possible for most people. But just because Fiji is far-fetched doesn't mean you can't treat your four-legged friends to a few fun outings to break out of the routine. Bring your buddy along while running errands. Make a play date with some friends. Take a drive in the car (if your pet enjoys it) and stop in for a treat at the local pet boutique. Just like a stay-cation can be fun for us, a little adventure outside of the ordinary can be refreshing for our pets.

Take care to protect your pets, both from the physical and the psychological effects of frigid temps and dark days this winter. The good news is the solstice is behind us -- which means you'll soon start noticing a few extra minutes of daylight creeping back into evening hours. We spring forward on Sunday, March 10. Until then, hang in there, stay warm and figure out a few new ways to have some fun in the winter sun!

For more by Natasha Ashton, click here.

For more on pet health, click here.

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