Integrative Pet Vet column: Circadian rhythm and winter activity for dogs
Integrative Pet Vet
Deep winter in our area is marked by long periods of darkness and cold. There is often snow and ice to contend with. These conditions combined with typical work schedules make it difficult to regularly spend time outdoors and exercise our dog companions. It is clear that exercise is valuable for pets just as it is for their human companions.
Whether you consider the high rate of obesity that contributes to metabolic diseases like diabetes, joint diseases like osteoarthritis, and cancer or the increased rates of behavioral problems associated with inactivity, appropriate exercise is critical for maintaining optimal physical and mental well-being.
Exercise helps to burn calories and maintain muscle mass. Muscle mass is important for metabolism, mobility and joint health. Exercise is also critical for the health of the heart and circulation of the blood and lymphatic fluid. The mental stimulation gained from being active, even if inside the house, is valuable for reducing boredom and other issues that contribute to behavior problems like excess or inappropriate barking, destructive activities and hyperactivity.
In addition to the effects of physical activity, health is affected by circadian rhythms. The term circadian rhythm refers to the pattern of physical, mental and behavioral changes that occur over a 24-hour period. Exposure to sunlight and periods of darkness are important for regulating the circadian rhythm of the body. Light wavelengths like those found in daylight result in signals from the eyes that trigger suppression of melatonin production.
During darkness, melatonin production increases and signals that it is time for sleep. Certain light wavelengths from artificial light can have the same effect on suppressing melatonin production and can disrupt or alter the circadian rhythm and sleep patterns. Sufficient daylight is also thought to be important for maintaining serotonin levels (see “Helping your pet manage winter blues” Nov. 24, 2017).
Circadian rhythms affect more than just the sleep cycle; they also help regulate activity levels through influence on brain activity and hormone patterns. This is thought to contribute to why dogs want to be active in the daytime and less active in the nighttime. Aging has an effect on the drive for activity because of changes in the brain. Older dogs have less drive for activity compared to younger dogs. The aging brain is also less sensitive to signals like those from melatonin.
Physical activity benefits health, is mentally stimulating and offers opportunities to be exposed to daylight. Make sure to get your dog out for a walk and play daily or even multiple times each day. Walks are better for physical activity than just being out in the yard since most dogs will just sit. Avoid the late nights with exposure to artificial light.
When on walks or playing be cautious with the cold temperatures, especially with dogs that are not adapted to the cold. Footing can be a challenge when ice is present. Slips and falls can result in injury and discomfort. Avoid areas where ice melt has been applied. These compounds can be irritating to dog’s feet. Evening or late day walks can be helpful for burning up accumulated energy from the day and help promote improved sleep patterns.
If it is too cold outside or it is unsafe due to ice conditions, play indoors. Create games that challenge your dog mentally and physically. These activities can include hiding a favorite toy or food and having your dog find it. Having your dog solve a puzzle to get access to their food can also be fun and stimulating.
Seek veterinary care if your dog has a physical problem like osteoarthritis or joint injury that makes walking or playing difficult (see “Osteoarthritis” Oct. 10, 2014). Management of pain can significantly improve quality of life and lead to other beneficial changes in activity levels. Pain can be addressed through a variety of methods including supplements, acupuncture, herbs, homeopathy and medications. Melatonin supplementation may have some benefits for night restlessness or anxiety especially in older dogs.
Enjoy the winter season. Appreciate the health benefits you gain from daily walks with your dog.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.