Pets can get the winter blues, too, says Linfield College animal behaviorist

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People aren’t the only ones who get the blues during the dark winter days. So do pets, says Mary Lee Nitschke, professor of psychology at Linfield College in Oregon.

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Give pets extra light during the winter months, says Mary Lee Nitschke, professor of psychology at Linfield College in Oregon.

"If your healthy dog or cat becomes lethargic or loses interest in everyday activities, they may be suffering from a simple lack of stimulation,” said Mary Lee Nitschke, an animal behaviorist whose research focuses on the animal-human bond. “Other signs to look for include a decrease in appetite.”

When a pet is down in the dumps or under-exercised it can lead to physical problems, said the Linfield College professor.

“Give pets extra light during the winter months,” Nitschke said. “Light is intimately tied to the functioning of the pituitary and endocrine glands, and can stimulate the body to release hormones that have an uplifting effect on mood. Just a half hour a day on a sunny back porch or window perch may do the trick.

“And getting out and walking your lonesome dog is good therapy for both of you,” said Nitschke, who helped found the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and provides national consultation on animal behavior and training programs. “Even a walk around the block releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in the brain.

“Pets may need extra playtime activities with you to get going again,” she said. “People do better when they have the support of friends, and the same is true for dogs. Give your pet extra time and teach her some new ways to engage with you.

“It’s good to give pets something interesting to think about,” said the Linfield professor. “Owners can hide treats throughout the house and then sit back and watch as their dog’s nose goes to work, or they can dangle feathers or fishing pole–style toys in front of cats.”

Positive training can also be a wonderful intervention, according to Nitschke. “It heightens healthy emotions and helps owners and dogs learn each other’s communication patterns.

And just as owners benefit from vacations in the winter, pets can benefit as well.

“Engage in activities that provide novel experiences,” Nitschke said. “The combination of new sights and smells will help lift your pet’s spirits.”

“There are numerous ‘pet camp’ programs available in the dog community,” she said. “Check out the possibilities.”

Linfield College is one of the few schools in the Pacific Northwest dedicated exclusively to undergraduate education, offering degrees in arts, sciences and professional programs. The small college was named one of the nation’s top picks for high school counselors across the U.S. and has been nationally praised for combining affordability and excellence. Linfield’s park-like residential campus is located an hour from Portland and an hour from Pacific Ocean beaches.

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Nadene LeCheminant
Linfield College
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