Behaviourist's corner

Could your dog have the winter blues?

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It’s normal for people to feel more down than usual at this time of year, but what about our pets? Certified clinical animal behaviourist Claire Hargrave answers our questions on doggy depression, and explains how best to care for your dog’s mental health. Plus, an owner shares the tricks she uses to keep her pets’ sadness at bay.

An owner’s story: ‘How I help my dogs cope with seasonal depression’

‘We’ve found it tricky to keep our dogs, Jake and Bella, happy in the colder months,’ says Petplan customer, Sarah Chapman-Pemberton. ‘So we’ve come up with an action plan to boost their spirits (and often it helps to boost our own, too!).

‘Firstly, we make sure to factor in extra time for play – running around the dining-room table, and tug-of-war are our favourites. Secondly, as the cold and dark can make it difficult to keep motivated to take the dogs out for exercise, we’ve also started our own walking group with neighbours. This helps to keep us accountable, and it also means our dogs get to be sociable and have regular contact with each other.

‘But we always aim to keep winter safety in mind; Bella has short fur and likes to be warm, so she wears a coat on walks, and our dog trainer recommended we use paw wax to help protect delicate feet when it’s frosty. Plus, we have light-up collars to make sure Bella and Jake are always visible. On days when we’re feeling particularly energetic, we bring out a luminous ball – it works like a charm, and in no time the dogs have forgotten about the chilly weather and are content to race around.’

Q: Is it really possible for dogs to feel depressed?

A: Dogs may not be able to express their feelings in the same ways that we can, but they have many of the same neurochemicals (substances responsible for the regulation of emotions in the brain) that we do. So it follows that they may experience something similar to human depression. Like us, dogs are also exposed to hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, when they’re stressed (which can be more often than we suspect). These chemicals wear off very slowly, and the levels of dopamine – the ‘happy’ hormone that drives dogs to seek positive outcomes – can then be depleted as a result.

Q: So could dogs be more prone to depression in winter?

A: Definitely! Cold weather usually means less exercise and outdoor play for your dog, both of which usually help to increase dopamine levels. Winter might also offer fewer opportunities to meet up with other dogs, which can affect your pet if he’s sociable.

Disruptions to your pet’s surroundings might also be a stressor that’s hard for him to deal with. January is an especially vulnerable time, as the increased attention your dog receives (from both you and your guests) over the festive period will abruptly give way to more time alone in the new year, as you head back to work or school. This is why a dog that previously seemed to cope well while alone at home could suddenly appear less energetic or enthusiastic than usual.

Q: What are the signs that a dog’s mental health is suffering?

A: Your dog will most likely be subdued, and will often retreat to his bed or find a quiet place to hide. He may interact with you less or, on the other hand, he could seem clingy and follow you everywhere – constantly seeking your attention and craving physical contact. Some dogs can become more vocal and bark more often, or he could develop a nervous shake. You should also look out for subtle signs of stress such as panting, excessive licking of lips, furrowing brows, tensing muscles, flattening ears, and yawning and stretching at odd times. Trust your instincts: if your dog’s behaviour is out of the ordinary for him, it could be a sign that all is not well with his mental state.

Q: How can you keep the doggy blues at bay?

A: Thankfully, there are lots of practical things you can do. For example, if your dog can’t exercise as much due to the wintery weather, think about increasing the amount of mental stimulation he receives. Puzzle-solving toys are a fantastic way to keep his mind occupied. They also have the benefit of positively rewarding him each time he gets the puzzle right – something that’s sure to help increase his dopamine levels. Another idea is to bring his exercise indoors. Think about creating an obstacle course with soft furniture and cardboard boxes for him to chase through, or invest in an indoor-friendly ball for a fun game of catch in your living room.

If you’re aware that your dog finds transitional periods, like increased alone time after the holidays, stressful, it might be a good idea to prepare ahead with stress-relieving products. A plug-in pheromone diffuser can be a particularly useful way to keep him calm and ease him into the change.

Q: What should you do if you suspect your dog is depressed?

A: Firstly, seek help from your vet. Sudden behavioural changes or an inability to cope in a familiar environment can be the first signs of illness, so make sure your vet checks there’s no physical problem.

If your dog has been cleared of any underlying conditions, your vet might refer him to a clinical animal behaviourist for further advice. Keep in mind that while caring for your dog’s physical health is important, it’s just as crucial to keep him mentally healthy, too.

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