When someone says seasonal changes, the first thing that comes to mind is rising temperatures. To warn us of the consequences of rising temperatures and seasonal change, we are often given images of polar bears casting adrift on small icy surfaces. Perhaps it is easier to make a statement with such a vivid depiction.
However, the consequences of seasonal change are not always that effortlessly striking. For example, the impact of seasonal change on our pets’ behaviour is not so easily seen and therefore often underestimated. Just because something is not so eye-piercing does not mean it is not there.
To make things simpler to understand, just think of the effect weather has on your energy levels and mood. You feel peppy and joyful on sunny spring days while you feel gloomy and lazy on rainy days. Well, the same concept applies to pets. Temperature fluctuations, rain, snow, sun, and even changes in the barometric pressure can all affect our pets’ moods and behaviors.
How seasonal change is affecting our pets?
Seasonal change is a new challenge for both us and our pets. As with anything new, it takes a certain amount of time and adaptation to learn how to cope with the changes.
While learning how to adapt, it is normal for our pets to exhibit behavioral changes. This is because rising to the challenge requires both physical and mental adaptations. And when the body and mind are exerted, behavior changes are inevitable.
Seasonal change and noise phobias
Seasonal change causes storms and thunder to become frequent in places that have barely seen simple rains. In areas where storms and thunder were more frequent, they increased in intensity and durations.
Most pets are naturally sensitive to noises and tend to become fearful during noisy events like storms and thunder. The problem is also aggravated because most pet parents do not perceive noise fear as an essential stress factor. This causes extreme weather events like storms and thunder to have a so-called knock-off effect. The knock-off effect means that the noise fear is neglected and left to progress until ultimately culminating into a generalized noise phobia. A pet with generalized noise phobia will show fear and anxiety in response to mild noise triggers such as wind, distant chatter on the street, the neighbor’s radio, or even the sound your hairdryer makes.
The more severely a pet reacts to the phobia-triggering sound, the longer it takes to recover, which adversely affects the overall health, welfare, and behavior.
In the past, thunderstorm-related phobias were only seen in adult dogs. Today, they are increasingly common among young dogs and what is even stranger, among cats of all ages.
Seasonal change and heat stress
Increased environmental temperatures are perhaps the most commonly associated issue with seasonal change.
Dogs naturally regulate their body temperature through panting – they release the body heat and change it for cooler air. This simple yet effective cooling mechanism is efficient in environmental temperatures lower than 32⁰C. In hotter conditions, the explained mechanism fails, and dogs become sensitive to heat exhaustion and even heat stroke. The problem is even more severe for brachycephalic dogs and cats who find breathing in normal circumstances to be hard enough. Heat exhaustion and stroke are life-threatening conditions that require prompt veterinary attention.
As the temperatures rise globally, dogs’ chances of reaching their point of heat exhaustion increases. Plus, researches show that the most common cause of heat-related deaths is, in fact, over-exertion. What does this mean? Well, it means that your dog does not need a 10-minute walk in scorching weather to become heat exhausted. Instead, a 20-minute walk in merely hot weather can be enough. This is mainly because dogs have thick coats that make them feel warmer than it actually is. Plus, their sweating mechanisms are not as efficient as ours. In recent years, vets report a dramatic increase in heat strokes among pets.
Finally, when concrete pavements are directly exposed to sunlight, they absorb heat and slowly release it. If a pet walks on such a heat-releasing surface, its paws will likely get burnt. Burn recoveries are long and painful.
All in all, pets love spending time outdoors, but if the outdoor poses risks like heat strokes and burns, pets will be less allowed and less tempted to spend time outdoors. This is enough to trigger behavioral changes. Therefore, it is advisable to consult with your vet about new activity alternatives that can substitute the previous routines. Not to mention that recovering from traumatic events like heat strokes and burns is behavior-altering on their own.
Seasonal change affects our pets’ reproductive behavior
The cat’s reproductive cycle is directly linked with seasonal changes. Namely, while male cats can mate all year round, in females, the initiation of the mating season is connected with the longer and warmer days during springtime. The higher environmental temperatures lead to more feline reproductive cycles per year and an explosion in the cat population.
Not only that, stray cats have more time to reproduce; since winter is more temperate, more newborn kittens will survive winter and grow into adult cats capable of producing their offspring. Basically, the simple rise in environmental temperatures is responsible for setting up a vicious cycle of stray cats’ overpopulation.
The uncontrolled increase in the stray cats’ population poses a serious threat to pet cats. For example, if pet cats are allowed to roam freely and come in contact with stray cats, they are at risk of catching potentially infectious life-threatening diseases from them.
Seasonal change causes pets to spend more time inside
Extreme weather events and temperature extremes make pets spend more time inside. Going out for walks and spending time outside is suitable for our pets’ and our own physical and mental health.
Even if for a simple walk, being outside provides pets with enough physical activity. Physical activity is essential to maintain healthy body weight. Spending more time inside and being less physically active increases the risk of obesity. Obesity is not a disease on its own, but it is a risk factor for many life-threatening conditions. What is more, obese pets often have hormonal problems. More often than not, those problems involve increased levels of the stress hormone – cortisol. High cortisol levels are associated with anxiety and behavioral issues.
Being confined to the indoors, for most pets, is stressful on its own. Pets are naturally inclined to investigate their surroundings. Going out provides more explorative opportunities, thus keeping the mind engaged and the pet mentally stimulated. The lack of mental stimulation often triggers behavioral issues like boredom-related chewing and separation anxiety.
Seasonal change affects neurotransmission
Seasonal change causes the weather to worsen in all aspects – the cold winters are becoming milder, and the hot summers are becoming hotter. Plus, extreme weather events increase in frequency, intensity, and duration.
A study conducted in 2015 showed that weather events, such as temperature fluctuations affect the nervous system’s functioning and neurotransmission processes
What is neurotransmission? Neurotransmission is the process through which nerve cells communicate with each other. It is aided through tiny molecules known as neurotransmitters. When one nerve cell transfers those tiny molecules to another nerve cell, it actually transfers information. Proper neurotransmission is the foundation of all bodily processes.
Alterations in the neurotransmission lead to behavioral changes and changes in many patterns and habits like sleeping, eating, and even motivation.
Seasonal change affects human behavior
Everything affecting our behavior is indirectly affecting our pets. Just imagine it is summer and the temperature is soaring. It is only logical that we will feel reluctant to go out. If we do not go out, our pets will not go out as well. Spending time outside offers both physical exercise and mental stimulation. If confined indoors, our pets are at risk of developing boredom due to inadequate mental stimulation levels. Spending less quality time with our pets may also trigger additional behavioral issues, such as separation anxiety.
Seasonal changes, natural disasters and human migration
Floods, hurricanes, fires, and other natural disasters are consequences of seasonal change. When a natural disaster strikes, people are evacuated, and many pets are left behind. This is mostly because evacuation plans rarely include pets, and shelters rarely accept pets. If they manage to survive, abandoned pets usually end up in animal shelters in some situations. Pets in animal shelters often develop behavioral issues. Most of them are abandonment-related, and unless properly addressed – long-term.
Even if the evacuation plan included pets and they were taken into temporary shelters together with their human families, the new environment exposure is stressful and enough to trigger behavioral issues and changes.
Why our pets cannot simply adapt?
Generally speaking, animals can adapt to seasonal change in three ways:
- Adaption in time
- Adaption in space
- Adaption in self
To adapt in time, animals must shift their phenology and change the timing of certain critical life events, like, for example, breeding. To adapt in space, animals must move to areas with more pleasant weather conditions. To adapt in self, animals must alter their behaviors following the changing environmental factors.
Now that we have explained the different ways animals adapt, it is only logical to wonder why our pet cannot merely adapt to seasonal change. Well, the answer is complicated and includes several reasons:
- Our pets depend on us. Wild animals may find it easier to adapt because they are independent and responsible for their actions and habits. Our pets and basically every aspect of their lives depend on us – from feeding through housing to lifestyle. Therefore, we cannot expect our pets to adapt without our help.
- Seasonal change is occurring. If you open any biology textbook, you will learn that animals are highly adaptable. That means our pets are highly adaptable. However, adaptation is something that occurs over a long period of time. Just like evolution. It is irrational to expect adaptations to happen overnight. Seasonal change poses a new challenge for our pets, and it is developing too fast for the natural adaptation mechanisms to kick in.
- Older pets have lower adapting capacities. Just like older people, senior pets have a more challenging time adapting to new conditions. What is more, pets in their senior life stage often suffer from dementia and cognitive dysfunction. These age-related issues lower the adaptation capacity.
How can we protect our pets from seasonal change?
Making an efficient protection plan starts with proper education. That includes ensuring you get free access to accurate and valuable information. You need to get a better understanding of the emerging threats associated with seasonal change. This is something veterinarians and other pet professionals (vet nurses, behaviorists, nutritionists, groomers, and trainers) must actively work on. They need to educate you – the pet parent and give you useful advice.
Once pet parents are well-informed, they can protect their pets by implementing simple routine changes. Since pets are creatures of habit, those routine changes should be made slowly and gradually. Here are some useful routine change tips:
- Walk your pet early in the morning and late at night when it is hot or in the middle of the day when it is cold. Invest in some indoor toys that will keep your pet physically and mentally stimulated. Alternatively, you can play puzzle games with your pet. That way, not only will the pet be encouraged, but you will also be spending quality time together, which positively affects the pet’s behavior.
- Avoid feeding your pet during the hottest periods of the day. High temperatures decrease appetite. On the flip side, if your pet spends a significant amount of time outside when it is cold, give it a more calorie-dense meal to compensate for the energy lost for keeping the body warm. If you have any concerns, always speak to your vet clinic about the most appropriate diet and quantity of food.
It is a common misconception that pets kept strictly outdoors should be given shelter inside your house during extreme weather events. Pets used to spending all of their time in the great outdoors do not perceive your home as a safe place. On the contrary, the new environment may exert more stress than the extreme weather event. Pets living outdoors should be provided with a safe shelter available to them 24/7, not just during weather extremes.
Seasonal change is real and it occurs as we speak. We cannot change that. What we can change is how we deal with it. We must join efforts to combat the effects of seasonal change and help our pets adapt to this new challenge.
As global temperatures rise, our pets’ welfare declines. The best way of protecting our pets is through proper education. Pet owners must be well-aware of the risks associated with seasonal change. They must also know how to prevent them or, if they already occurred, how to minimize their negative impact.
Fortunately, by making simple changes in our pets’ routines, we can significantly decrease the impact of seasonal change on the pets’ behaviors. If you are unsure how to protect your beloved pet from seasonal change-related risks, do not hesitate to seek advice from a veterinary professional or behaviorist.