Research has shown that even pets get the blues during the time of year when the Earth is tilted away from the sun’s direct intervention. The waning light of winter certainly yields more depressive incidents among the human population, so why not our pets?
The study I cite, however flawed its methodology might have been, is at least illustrative of people who consider their pets to be depressed during these months. They report greater indolence, increased sleep time and less of an appetite in their pets. I question the study's merits only because true Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is difficult to establish among humans, let alone their pets. After all, pets may merely be resting more, as many of mother nature’s creatures tend to do when faced with a diminished opportunity for play or prey time.
Our anthropomorphic sensibilities clearly make way for our observation of the quiet winter months as a time of depression - we get depressed, animals must get depressed too. But for them, resting more than usual, with less play and activity expended, might in fact be a way of storing energy, by way of augmented fat reserves, for the lean months of winter and the busy months to come. Bears, whales and penguins do it, why not our pets, too? After all, evolution has favored those animals that can most efficiently store energy through these lean winter months ... even if modern convenience has changed food distribution.
More interesting, however, is the possibility that the sense we humans perceive as depression, even within our own selves, is heightened by our natural tendencies towards the same. This makes more sense for those living in Fairbanks, Norway or upper Minnesota than for folk like me living in winter-less Miami.
It’s clear from a multitude of studies that melatonin and other dwindling-light-related hormones push us in the direction of a quiet contemplation that is perhaps ill-suited to most of humanity. Why else are the suicidal tendencies more pronounced in Northern latitudes? Genetics? Perhaps mental illness is accountable in some populations, but why then the cure of SAD with the influx of natural light after the same individuals move southwards?
As more breeds of pets are removed from their natural environments, it makes sense that they must surely feel the same as we do, to some extent. They, too, are affected by many of the same mammalian hormones, such as melatonin. Does that mean that pets might be "happier" in southerly climes as well?
I don’t have an answer, but I do know that SAD exacts a decided toll on humans. It’s then reasonable to believe that pets whose breeds are more acclimated to equatorial regions might be more susceptible to the insinuation of this disorder. But who knows? In my opinion, studies in this vein are only good if the humans who rank their pets’ behavior are in two different climactic zones over a period of years.
Hence, we may never know how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, or how many hours of sunlight we need to be happy, but it sure is fun to keep trying to figure it out, right?
Dr. Patty Khuly