Lethargic? Withdrawn? A bit chunkier than usual? No, not you… your cat! Seasonal depression can take a toll on pets as well as people. If you’ve ever experienced seasonal affective disorder, you know how difficult it is to find the motivation to be active and healthy during these short days. A depressed cat is no different—let’s take a look at ways to cope with your pet’s winter blues.
What is seasonal depression?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs around the same time every year—typically beginning in late fall or early winter and lasting into spring. The theory is that less sunlight during fall and winter leads to the brain making less serotonin (the feel-good hormone) and more melatonin (the sleep-inducing hormone).
What causes seasonal depression in cats?
You may be wondering: If cats are nocturnal (or crepuscular, anyway), why would the lack of light bother them? While little research has been done on SAD or mood disorders in pets, cats and dogs share some of the same brain chemistry as humans. Therefore, their similar seasonal production of serotonin and melatonin—or lack thereof—is a safe assumption.
Another possibility? Your own low energy and seasonal depression might be bumming out your cat. Certified animal behavior consultant Steve Dale says, “Pets’ moods mirror our moods. If we’re moody around the house all day, cats and dogs can pick up on this.”
Finally, your cat may simply be bored. If you’re not as active in the winter, that likely translates to less playing with and stimulation for your cat. Reduced activity around the house and outside the window might also contribute to your cat’s listlessness.
Symptoms of a depressed cat
According to CatHealth.com, a survey done by the UK organization the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals indicated that “one-third of cat owners noticed that their cat’s mood and energy levels were lower during the winter than the summer. Not only that, but one-quarter of them also noticed an increased appetite in their cat during the darker months.”
You may notice the following symptoms in your seasonally depressed cat:
- Low energy, sluggishness
- Change in appetite or weight
- Increased restlessness, anxiety, or aggression
- Reduced social interactions
- Hair loss (in extreme cases—this is most commonly seen in certain dog breeds living in northern climates)
How to help a cat with seasonal depression
Helping your cat beat the winter blues is very similar to how you’d treat the same disorder in yourself: Light therapy and physical activity are key.
The benefits of spending time outside is two-fold with natural daylight and physical activity. If you have an adventurous indoor-only cat, take her outside on a leash or in a closely supervised outdoor area.
Full-spectrum light bulb or sun lamp
Many people treat SAD with light therapy in the form of sun lamps or full-spectrum light bulbs. You can do the same thing with your cat! Take some time to play with her in front of or under the light, or simply snuggle together near it if you don’t have much energy. Experts suggest starting with 15 minutes of full-spectrum light per day, and gradually increasing to an hour per day.
Mental and physical stimulation
Keep your cat stimulated while you’re gone during the day with puzzle feeders or even a robot cat toy. Play one-on-one with her for at least 15 minutes per day.
Diet and supplements
Help your kitty maintain a healthy diet by feeding her a strict amount each day; the winter blues may increase her appetite, but don’t refill the bowl if you notice that it’s empty sooner than usual. You can also discuss pet supplements with your vet—but don’t give your cat your own supplements.
A depressed cat deserves treatment just as a depressed person does. With these tips in mind, you can help mitigate the effects of seasonal depression, and perhaps feel a bit happier during the long winter months yourself!