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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Pets: Exercise and Light Provide Relief

Feb 02, 2016 05:14PM ● By Mary Oquendo

In February, the days are getting longer; the average amount of sunlight will start at 10 hours a day and work its way up to 11 hours by the end of the month. It’s well documented that winter’s lower daylight levels impact our mental and physical well-being in a syndrome called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. But did you know SAD also affects dogs and cats? In a 2013 article in Psychology Today, Stanley Coren, PhD, FRSC, states that it influences them for the same reasons that SAD affects humans; the circadian rhythms—along with the production of melatonin and serotonin—are thrown off. SAD is estimated to affect 25 percent of dogs and 33 percent of cats.

Circadian Rhythm

The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock. Responsive to light and dark cycles, it regulates bodily functions over a 24-hour period. Longer darker periods of time disrupt the circadian rhythm, resulting in altered sleep patterns. This lack of uninterrupted sleep may result in a pet feeling lethargic.


The brain produces melatonin when it is dark outside, and then halts production in sunlight. Melatonin is what makes you sleepy at night. During the shorter days, there is an overproduction of melatonin, compounding the already disrupted circadian rhythm.


The reduced amount of sunlight also inhibits production of serotonin, also known as the “happy hormone”. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for moods. Lower levels of serotonin will adversely affect appetite (more), sleep (less) and memory. In other words, SAD may make your pet tired, hungry and grouchy.

How can you help your pet?

Exercise will boost the lagging serotonin levels and improve sleep cycles. Spend an hour outside every day or as often as possible in the sunlight. If you are unable to do so because of work obligations, hire a pet walker.

Exercise coupled with time together has the added benefit of strengthening the human-animal bond with your pet. However, time spent outdoors in the winter poses certain dilemmas; be aware of weather conditions and bring water along for an extended walk.

Dehydration is a risk in cold weather because blood vessels constrict to conserve heat. This constriction tricks the body into thinking it is not thirsty. On top of it, as kidneys produce more urine due to the cold, dehydration can come on as quickly in cold weather as it does when it’s hot outside. Protect your pet’s paws from cold, snow and ice. Don’t let them walk on crusty snow as it can lacerate paws. Rinse off their paws with tepid water when you get home to remove salt and ice balls wedged in between the pads. There are salves you can apply to their paws before you go outside to protect them from the elements. If you use protective footwear, size it properly to ensure a good fit. Keep in mind that short- and medium-coated dogs may need outerwear to protect them from the cold.

Install full spectrum or white light bulbs in several places around the house. Regular incandescent bulbs are a good choice as well. Both radiate a similar wavelength as sunlight. They should be shut off a couple of hours before bedtime as to allow for production of melatonin.

Mary Oquendo is a Reiki master, advanced crystal master and certified master pet tech pet first aid instructor. She is the co-owner of Hands and Paws-Reiki for All. She can be reached at See ads, pages 18 and 77.