Unlike some wild animals that hibernate during winter, domestic cats do not. The changes that you see in your feline might just be his way of coping with the cool temperature. It is also possible that he is experiencing seasonal affective disorder.
Do Cats Hibernate?
Cats do not hibernate and they do not need to. Domestic cats trace their roots from the wildcat known as Felis silvestris, commonly called the African wildcat. This wildcat is spread across Africa and the Mediterranean.
If you will look at where these wildcats come from, you will see that these places do not have harsh winters compared to other parts of the globe. As such, these wildcats can stay active during wintertime. Simply put, these cats have not had the need to hibernate during winter.
Even the big cats do not hibernate. Many big cats that live in areas that have harsh winters have evolved to cope with harsh conditions by growing thicker fur, enabling them to continue hunting.
Instead of going into hibernation, cats and other creatures enter into a state of torpor. Torpor is a state where a creature has reduced metabolism and lower body temperature.
In this state, an animal will go about its usual activities during its waking hours, like hunting or foraging for food. But come night time, the animal will conserve its remaining energy by lowering its body temperature. It will also spend more time sleeping.
What is hibernation?
To better explain why cats do not hibernate, it is worthwhile to understand what hibernation actually is. In the wild, animals have three ways to cope with the arrival of the harsh winter. They can migrate to areas with warmer temperatures, stay where they are and hibernate, or go on about their usual way of living.
Every activity that a creature does requires the consumption of energy. These include foraging or hunting for food and eating. Even bodily functions like the circulation of blood and breathing all require the use of energy.
Before the onset of winter, some animals hibernate to conserve energy. Winter can be tough for many animals, especially predators. Some of their prey may have migrated or have hibernated. And instead of trying their luck hunting or foraging for food, they hibernate instead.
When an animal is in a state of hibernation, it uses the least amount of energy. This translates to physiological changes in the animal, including lower breathing and heart rates as well as lower body temperature. Apart from that, the animal will have a diminished consciousness, making it almost completely unaware of what is happening around it.
An animal can survive long periods of sleep because of its fat stores. Before the arrival of winter, animals that go into hibernation will fill up their fat reserves by consuming more food. Once these animals are in hibernation, they rely upon these fat reserves as a source of energy.
Domestic cats do not need to hibernate because their humans can provide them with all their needs, from food to a warm shelter from the cold temperature.
How winter affects cats
One of the most noticeable effects of winter in felines is that they spend more hours sleeping. On average, cats spend 15 hours a day sleeping, although it is not unusual for some to spend as much as 20 hours.
As their pets spend more time sleeping than they usually do, owners suspect that their cats have entered into a state of hibernation. That is simply not true. Cats do not hibernate.
The combination of fewer hours of daylight and cold temperature entices many creatures, including cats and their humans, to spend more time sleeping. In cats, sleeping more hours during winter is normal.
In most cases, you do not have to worry about your cat spending most of his day sleeping. In fact, sleeping longer can mean that your pet is content and happy where he is. The only time you need to worry about your cat sleeping long hours is when he sleeps so much that he misses out on his mealtimes and neglects other activities like playtime.
Seasonal affective disorder in cats
Cat owners should also watch out for symptoms of seasonal affective disorder or SAD in their pets. SAD is a type of depression that typically occurs during autumn and winter, coinciding with the cold weather and shorter days and longer nights.
In people, the symptoms of this type of depression include poor sleep, low energy levels, changes in appetite, and sadness. Typically, these symptoms remain just until spring when the days become longer and the weather becomes warmer.
Cats can also succumb to SAD, exhibiting symptoms like fatigue, restlessness, and drastic changes in eating patterns. The decrease in the amount of sunlight due to the seasons adversely affects cats. This decrease in natural light alters the production of serotonin in cats.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter inside a creature’s body that is responsible for regulating several bodily functions. These include sleep, memory, digestion, appetite, mood, and even social behavior.
Apart from the changes in the levels of sunlight your cat may be getting during fall and winter, depression in felines can also kick in due to inactivity. When a cat does not get enough exercise, he exhibits symptoms like irritation and restlessness.
Helping your cat cope with winter
If you suspect that your pet is suffering from SAD, there are a few things you can do to help him cope better until spring’s arrival.
Give him more access to light
During the latter part of the year, the days grow shorter while the nights become longer. In turn, this drastically reduces the amount of natural light that your cat gets, leading to SAD. One of the best ways to counter the effects of SAD is to provide your cat with more sunlight.
Look at the spots where your cat usually hangs out at your home. Ideally, he should spend more time in areas in your home that get more sunlight. Sometimes it takes little effort to give him more sunlight. For example, you can just lift his cat bed to get more natural light. Or you can entice him to move and stay in a sunnier spot in your home.
If there is limited natural light that enters your home during autumn and winter, you should consider investing in a SAD light. SAD lights were originally designed to help humans cope with winter blues. However, these lamps can also benefit felines who are not getting ample sunlight. SAD lights mimic sunlight and their effects are the same as natural light.
Avoid overfeeding your feline
During winter, some cats will hardly touch their food, while others become voracious eaters.
If your pet seems to be hungrier than usual, avoid the temptation to give him more food. The combination of excess weight and minimal physical activity can adversely affect your pet, making him vulnerable to a host of conditions, including arthritis, cancer, diabetes, liver disease, and respiratory problems.
Always be mindful of the amount of food you serve to your cat, especially during winter. If you are unsure of how much food you should give him or if you notice changes in his appetite, book an appointment with his veterinarian.
Take him outdoors
It may seem counterintuitive, but your cat can benefit immensely by spending just a few minutes outdoors, even during winter. As long as it is sunny outside and you limit the time spent outdoors, you can go out and play with your cat.
Exercising your cat during winter
Another great way to keep the winter blues away from your cat is to play regularly with your pet. That can be particularly challenging when your and your cat’s energy levels are considerably low because of the season. But the benefits can be immense for both of you.
You do not need to spend hours and hours playing with your furry little pal. In as little as 10 minutes a day, your pet can benefit from increased physical activity. Set aside a few minutes each to play with your cat. Cats are creatures of habit and alloting a few minutes of playtime allows him to develop that habit.
Playtime does not need to be complicated. You can bring out his favorite toys or stimulate his brain through indoor hunting.
If you are using toys, it is a good idea to cycle through his toys instead of spreading these all out for him. From time to time, change the toys that you give your cat. Felines tend to get bored if you give them the same toys over and over again.
You can also use your pet’s favorite treats to encourage him to hunt for his food instead of just giving these to him. Scatter these around your home and let your pet hunt for these. This will exercise both his mind and body.
If the weather permits it and it is sunny outside, you and your cat can spend a few minutes outside. This will allow him to get some sunlight while giving him an opportunity to exercise.
Your cat does not hibernate
Felines, including domestic cats, do not hibernate during winter. They have evolved to weather the challenges posed by harsh winters. Domestic cats, in particular, do not need to hibernate because most, if not all, of their needs, are provided by their humans.
However, the combination of the cold weather and shorter daytime can adversely affect your cat’s behavior. Watch out for drastic changes in behavior and make the necessary adjustments to make winter more bearable for your furry little pal.
Image: istockphoto.com / Tomwang112