How pet parents can beat the winter blues with their pets

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How pet parents can beat the winter blues with their pets - A cat and a dog lying on a couch

Many pet owners notice symptoms similar to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in their pets, such as lower energy levels or irritability, but you may be surprised to learn that pets do not have the same psychological response to the dreary winter months as their human owners. Read on to discover answers to the questions:

  • Do pets get the winter blues?
  • Does my pet need to eat more in the winter?
  • What winter activities will keep my pet healthy and active?
  • Are pets more likely to get sick in the winter?

Most humans living in a climate with a cold season are familiar with the winter doldrums, a colloquial term for SAD, which is a mysterious illness that strikes during the winter months. SAD in humans includes depressive symptoms like lower energy levels, fatigue, and social withdrawal that align with the wintertime drop in temperature and sunlight. Learn how your pet reacts to the cold winter months and what you can do to keep them happy and healthy.

Do pets get the winter blues during the cold season?

Cats, dogs, and other animals commonly kept as pets do not experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. Animals adapt to changes in the seasons differently than humans, and most house pets enjoy a climate-controlled environment. The following symptoms in pets are often wrongfully attributed to the human psychological disorder known as the winter blues:

If your pet displays any of these symptoms, you should see a vet to look for the underlying cause. Sick animals may display symptoms coinciding with the start of winter, but this does not mean their symptoms are due to cold weather or dark days.

“When a pet comes into the clinic with vague symptoms like decreased energy and activity, I rely on objective tools like a physical examination, blood tests, urine and stool analysis, and diagnostic imaging to rule out potential explanations for the changed behavior,” says Vetster veterinarian Jo Myers, DVM. “I don’t want to overlook early symptoms of a potentially serious condition by assuming it’s the result of a change in the weather. If no underlying illness is present, pets may simply be responding to their human owner’s ‘winter doldrums’ and corresponding changes in their routine, including less exercise, playtime, or attention.”

Does my pet need to eat more in the winter?

While some pet owners notice that their pets seem to have an increased appetite in the wintertime, it is actually a myth that pets need to eat more in the winter. The only reason you would need to feed your pet more in the winter is if your pet is more active and burning more calories during this time. This means you may actually need to feed your pet less than you do in the warmer months if they are less active in the wintertime.

Certain animals, such as sled dogs or other working dogs, may require an increase in calories if their workload comes with changing seasonal demands. Check with your vet to determine the correct feeding schedule and portion size for your pet based on its size, weight, and activity level.

What winter activities will keep my pet healthy and active?

Contact with and caring for animals offers many benefits to pet owners year-round. Humans with stressful jobs, such as health workers, can increase their sense of well-being by having a pet and receiving their unconditional love. Focusing on keeping your pet healthy and active during the winter can serve a dual purpose in keeping your own winter doldrums at bay.

During the colder months when there are fewer hours of daylight, you may be less likely to go on long walks with your dog or participate in evening playtime with your cat. Making an effort to incorporate the following activities into your routine can compensate for the warmer weather outings you may be missing:

  • Trying out new pet meet-ups for socialization with other owners and animals. Contact with other animals can be beneficial for your pet in the winter, just like in other months.
  • Attending group obedience or agility training.
  • Visiting pet-friendly shopping centers and restaurants.
  • Scheduling time for indoor play with games like fetch.
  • Teaching your pet basic commands. Learning basic commands such as “stay” and “come” can be a good bonding activity for you and your pet that also make all of your outings together safer.
  • Teaching trick training to your pets who already have their basic commands down.
  • Purchasing indoor puzzle toys that incorporate treats to stimulate your pet’s mind.

During the indoor-heavy winter months, remember to make sure that your home is pet-friendly and free from common hazards that your pets may get into. There may be an unusual abundance of food available for counter-surfers, leaving them at risk for chocolate toxicosis or yeast dough poisoning.

Lit candles are another common countertop hazard for pets.

Always provide your pet with fresh, clean drinking water and nutritionally balanced food. Be cautious around the holidays when guests may share their food with your dog or cat. Many foods and treats intended for human consumption can make pets sick.

Keep in mind that socializing with other pets may increase your pets’ risk of exposure to infectious diseases. Stay up to date on vaccinations and avoid contact with pets showing symptoms like coughing, runny eyes/noses, or itchy skin rashes.

If you plan to travel with your pet, check with animal health workers and your vet for advisories on contagious illnesses in the area as well as any required or recommended vaccinations.

Are pets more likely to get sick in the winter months?

Contrary to popular belief, a normal, healthy pet is not any more likely to get sick in the winter than other times of year. An animal's immune system should not be affected by the seasonal change from warmer months to colder months. However, with colder temperatures there are special considerations for sick animals or animals with conditions like canine or feline arthritis.

Wintertime and the start of the new year is a good reminder to review your pet's vaccination records and make sure they are up to date on their vaccines and routine vet appointments. If your pet begins displaying out-of-the-ordinary symptoms in the winter (or at any time), book an online virtual care appointment to learn more.

Following these tips can help your pet stay healthy, and your healthy pet may actually help you beat your winter blues.

FAQ - How pet parents can beat the winter blues with their pets

Do pets sleep more in the winter?

While some pets may sleep more in the winter, it’s often simply because there is less opportunity to play outside and less activity in the house. Long nights and short days are a recipe for a little extra shut-eye.

Lethargy and fatigue may also be a sign of illness. If your feline or canine companion seems sleepier than usual with the onset of winter, it’s worth having a consultation with an online vet who can advise if further testing, including blood tests, is necessary.

Can pets get Seasonal Affective Disorder?

There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that pets experience SAD, and it is not a recognized condition in animals. Changes in mood that occur with the change of season are more likely a response to a change in their owner’s behavior or even an indication of illness. For example, an owner who has the winter blues themselves and doesn’t feel like taking their pet on a walk may find that their pet is restless, frustrated, or bored. This is likely due to the change in their routine and lack of exercise or stimulation rather than a psychological disorder.

If your pet is displaying unusual symptoms at any time of year, have them checked by a vet. A routine checkup along with simple blood tests can often indicate whether your pet is experiencing some type of illness.

Can my dog get dehydrated in the winter?

Yes, animals of any kind can still get dehydrated in the winter, including your canine companion. However, you can rest assured that a healthy pet will not become dehydrated as long as they have access to water. In the winter, it’s especially important to make sure your dog's water doesn’t end up getting frozen if there is a dish in use outdoors.

There is no reason to do anything extra to encourage your pet to drink, and doing so can cause them to drink less. Canines have evolved to instinctively drink enough to stay hydrated. When a dog with access to water becomes dehydrated, it’s due to an illness causing excessive fluid loss or interfering with their internal hydration system — not because you didn’t make them drink enough.

Keep up with regular vet check-ups to monitor overall health, and hydration should automatically stay in check no matter the season.