Caitlin UltimoHealth / Symptoms & Solutions

Help! My Old Dog Won’t Sleep At Night

Have you discovered that when it comes to bedtime, you’re far more dog-tired than your dog? Senior dogs who won’t settle down at night may be disrupting your sleep, but be patient: A change in sleep patterns may be a symptom that your older dog has developed some health problems.

The good news is that there are solutions that can help some senior dogs and the Sandman become friends again. “All dogs, but especially senior dogs who experience a change in sleep behavior, specifically waking up at night, should be examined by their veterinarian sooner rather than later,” says Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM. “I would check in with your vet after a night or two of disrupted sleep, depending on how upset your dog is and other signs seen.”

Causes of Sleeplessness in Dogs

“Sleep disruptions can be from a variety of causes, often medical in nature,” Crosby says. She specializes in small animals and often writes about veterinary medicine. “Causes range from gastrointestinal trouble to urinary system infection to early stages of dementia.” Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, DACVB, distills the medical issues further into two categories, the first mirroring Crosby’s assessment of dementia in the form of canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), also commonly known as canine Alzheimer’s.

Dementia as a Cause of Dog Insomnia

“Just like people, as dogs get older there is an increasing frequency [of dementia],” Dodman says. “If a dog makes it to 18 or 19, there’s a greater chance he has it. One of the cardinal signs is not sleeping at night. Dogs may sleep during the day and then not sleep at night. With dogs they also get animated at night and don’t seem to be able to rest.”

When sleeplessness is triggered by canine Alzheimer’s, it’s a medical cause that presents as a behavioral issue, Dodman says. He is the section head and program director of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences at the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University. Because there’s no test for CCD, diagnosis can be tricky. It’s a diagnosis of exclusion when other causes have been ruled out, he says. A trip to your veterinarian can help determine causes, and rule out others, by performing a physical examination, blood work and a urinalysis, Crosby says. After that point, your vet may recommend more extensive testing, but not until then.

“You don’t do a bone scan or MRI willy nilly — only after standard tests have been done,” Dodman says. Symptoms of canine Alzheimer’s, or senility, that affect sleep include a lack of settling down, disorientation and confusion. And there may be indicators during the day, too, including reduced appetite, weight loss and lack of energy. If a dog does have CCD, owners should be aware that they can treat it symptomatically with dog medication, but there is no cure, unfortunately, which is one of the parallels to human Alzheimer’s.

Pain as a Cause of Dog Insomnia

The second category that can cause old dogs to sleep less is pain, especially cancer, which Dodman said is the most common cause of death in older dogs. “Tumors swell and grow and push things around,” he says. Dogs 10 years and older get weaker immune systems, which can make them more susceptible to diseases. And if a dog is in pain, that pain is worse at night because there are no distractions, Dodman says.

Pain is expressed primarily as anxiety at night and has many of the same signs as fear, which includes raised hackles. In addition, a frightened dog may have enlarged pupils because the dog is flooded with adrenaline. Dogs can salivate from extreme fear or being in distress. Other symptoms for owners to monitor to help determine if their senior dog is experiencing fear at night are tucked tails and what Dodman calls “whale eye.” This refers to when you see mostly the whites of the eyes.

Sleeplessness may also be caused by seizures. “Seizures are not as well suppressed as they are during the day, and seizures are especially common in old dogs,” Dodman says. “A dog may wake up aggressive to an inanimate object.”

Medical Treatments for Dog Insomnia

You might find that the drug your dog takes has a parallel for human use. For example, your veterinarian may prescribe Anipryl for a dog with CCD; on the human side the medication is Eldepryl. Other prescriptions for CCD include Aricept and Namenda.

On the holistic side, huperzine A, an extract of firmoss used to help some people with Alzheimer’s, is used to treat dysfunction. But you must consult your veterinarian to get the proper dosage of this natural remedy for your pet and discuss side effects.

Environmental Causes and Treatments for Dog Insomnia

Any change in an adult dog’s behavior is cause for concern, says Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA. She is director of Peaceable Paws Trainer Academies in Fairplay, Maryland.

The good news is sometimes there are external factors causing that change that can be resolved. The trick may be determining just what those factors are, and that may take some patience. To counter outside noises you can’t control, Miller recommends white noise, “Or the lovely ‘Through a Dog’s Ear’ music.”

There’s also another possible treatment that Crosby points out. “I am also a big fan of the Adaptil [formerly called dog-appeasing pheromone, or DAP] collar for dogs who may be anxious with a schedule disruption, thunder, travel or other stresses,” she said. If your old dog has learned the new trick of insomnia, think about any changes that have occurred, such as the following:

  • Changes in the household routine.
  • New noises outside that might be disturbing your dog.
  • New household members.
  • Reduction in dog’s daily exercise/activity level.

Those new noises may be seasonal. Dodman listed the following examples of noise phobias affecting dogs’ ability to sleep: Snow plows screeching as metal scraped the ground caused one dog with a somewhat nervous disposition to pace and pant. Another dog was traumatized when the heating system in an older house kicked in, causing sleep issues.

“Dogs love routine, some dogs more than others,” Crosby says. And it stands to reason that an older dog has had that routine for a longer time. “Same times, human schedule, etc., provide structure and good sleep once possible medical problems have been ruled out,” she adds.

Miller has further suggestions for the environment. “If there are other environmental disturbances, I would try to return the environment to as ‘normal’ a state as possible,” she says. Miller says that increasing exercise may help a dog sleep, but she warns that owners must check with their veterinarian before increasing exercise for a senior dog.

It may take some time and patience to determine what your dog may be experiencing or exposed to while the rest of the family is tucked in bed. Have fun with this. Pretend you’re a detective in a movie and sleuth around the house when you’re normally in bed to see — and hear — what goes on. This would probably be best done, and most productive, on a night when you get to sleep in the next day. Doing it the night before a big meeting and explaining your yawns with, “I was playing detective for my dog” may start some interesting office gossip.

Dog Sleep Apnea and Dog Nightmares

People who suffer from sleep apnea may be inclined to think that their older dog with sleep issues has dog sleep apnea. But this may prove not to be the issue. Sleep apnea doesn’t necessarily occur in older dogs, but it does with brachycephalic dogs, especially if they’re overweight, just like with people, Dodman says.

Something else that can affect a dog’s sleep at any age is nightmares. This is something our 12-year-old Bull Terrier, Medusa, goes through. With some yelps and twitching, it seems fairly mild and we wake her up right away. Dodman said EEGs demonstrate brainwave activity increases during REM, the dreaming phase of sleep. Dogs with the condition REM behavior disorder (RBD) physically act out what’s going on instead of dreaming quietly.

Remember I said Medusa is a Bull Terrier? Turns out Dodman sees this in Bull Terriers and Golden Retrievers in particular.

If your older dog is having sleep issues, your veterinarian can help get to the root of the issue. “Senior dogs should be getting at least an annual senior well-pet check-up, if not twice a year,” Miller says. “And if any significant behavior changes occur between visits, a conversation with the vet is always warranted.”

Together you can help ensure your dog has a good night’s sleep in their dog bed and greets the morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Well, that last part depends on the breed, of course.


Featured Image: Evan Sharboneau/Hemera/Thinkstock

By: Elizabeth Anderson Lopez