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4 Most Common Sleep Disorders in Dogs

by Bella Woof

You often hear people talk about their experiences with insomnia, but did you know that sleep disorders can also affect our dogs? Sleep is important to your pet’s well-being and sleep disorders in dogs can be difficult for the entire family.

Below we explain the four most common sleep disorders in dogs.

What are the most common sleep disorders in dogs?

Sleep disorders are rare in dogs in general. Disorders known to affect dogs include insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and REM sleep behavior disorder.

If you notice signs of any sleep disorders, you should contact your veterinarian for a diagnosis and treatment plan. The best thing you can do to help obtain a diagnosis is to record a video of the behavior. Aside from the possibility of seeing a narcoleptic episode, it is unlikely that your veterinarian will see any evidence of the sleep disorder in the clinic.

Insomnia in dogs

Insomnia in dogs usually has an underlying medical or behavioral cause. Common causes of insomnia in dogs include canine cognitive dysfunction (dementia), anxiety or stress, pain, and excessive itching.

Dogs with insomnia often pace, whine, bark, or act confused at night. They may try to wake up their human family members. These pets often appear much more tired during the day.

Insomnia in dogs is more common in older pets. However, some younger dogs with conditions such as generalized anxiety or allergies to biting fleas may also have insomnia.

Sleep apnea in dogs

With sleep apnea in dogs, the pet stops breathing momentarily while sleeping, sometimes many times during the night. Sleep apnea occurs because the airways become constricted or blocked, preventing air from reaching the lungs.

Sleep apnea is more common in flat-faced (brachycephalic) dogs, such as Pugs, English Bulldogs, and French Bulldogs. These dogs often have changes in their airways that make them more likely to shrink or become blocked. For example, they often have very narrow nostrils (stenotic nostrils) and a longer soft palate (part of the roof of the mouth) that may hang over the opening of the windpipe.

Dogs with severe obesity may also be prone to sleep apnea because internal fatty tissue puts too much pressure on their airways.

A common sign of sleep apnea is loud snoring at night. Dogs with sleep apnea may also appear tired during the day. If your dog wakes up startled and then falls back asleep, this is also a sign of sleep apnea.

If you are concerned about sleep apnea, consult a veterinarian. If your dog’s breathing does not resume immediately or you notice his gums are cloudy or bluish in color, this is a medical emergency and you should contact your veterinarian or an emergency vet.

Narcolepsy in dogs

Narcolepsy in dogs can be quite frightening for pet parents the first few times they are faced with a narcoleptic episode.

Signs of narcolepsy in dogs include fragmented (disrupted) sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, and sudden physical falls (cataplexy) during play or when excited. With narcolepsy, the pet is often active and excited one moment and then suddenly appears to pass out for a few seconds or even a few minutes.

Narcolepsy is inherited in some dogs and appears between four weeks and six months of age. Breeds that are sometimes affected by hereditary narcolepsy include the Doberman Pinscher, Labrador Retriever, and Dachshund.

Inherited forms of narcolepsy occur due to a change in a specific gene called the hypocretin receptor 2 gene. Hypocretin is a chemical produced by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This chemical plays an important role in controlling sleep and wake periods in dogs.

Dogs with hereditary narcolepsy have normal hypocretin levels but abnormal receptors, so they do not respond normally to hypocretin. This results in narcoleptic episodes, especially during times of excitement.

Dogs that develop narcolepsy later in life are usually between seven months and seven years old. Dogs with acquired narcolepsy do not produce enough hypocretin. The underlying cause of decreased hypocretin production is currently unknown. This condition is known to affect at least 17 dog breeds, including Airedale Terriers, Alaskan Malamutes, and Saint Bernards.

Narcolepsy is not progressive or life-threatening, but requires lifelong treatment.

REM sleep behavior disorder

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder in dogs occurs when the dog has violent movements and strange behaviors while sleeping.

During REM sleep, the eyes move rapidly and the brain is active. REM sleep is the stage of sleep in which dreams occur. During normal REM sleep, muscles become temporarily paralyzed. In dogs with REM sleep behavior disorder, muscle paralysis does not occur.

Signs of REM sleep disorder in dogs include violent limb movements, howling, barking, growling, chewing, or even biting while sleeping. These signs can be seen while sleeping at night or even during naps.

REM sleep behavior disorder in dogs often begins in younger dogs, with more than half of dogs showing signs by the time they are one year old or younger. There is no known sex or race predisposition.

Most dogs require lifelong management and do not fully recover from this disorder. However, if REM sleep behavior disorder occurs with another condition such as tetanus, treatment of the other condition may also result in recovery from the sleep disorder.

Treatment for sleep disorders in dogs

Once your pet has a diagnosis, treatment will be based on which sleep disorder is affecting your pet.

Management of insomnia in dogs may include:

  • Medicines—Dogs with insomnia can take medication to help with sleep and reduce anxiety. Examples include trazodone, clorazepate, alprazolam, flurazepam, and clonazepam.
  • Supplements—Examples include valerian, kava, and melatonin. Talk to your veterinarian before starting any supplements.
  • Management of underlying conditions.—For example, if your dog’s ability to sleep is affected by a painful condition such as arthritis, your veterinarian may prescribe pain relievers such as grapiprant (Galliprant®) and recommend using an orthopedic dog bed at night. If they have cognitive dysfunction, treatment may include prescription diets; medications such as selegiline or anxiolytics; and supplements like Senilife®.
  • Changes in daytime routine—Your veterinarian may recommend mind-body activities for your dog during the day to help your pet burn off extra energy, relieve anxiety, and create nighttime tiredness.

Treatment of sleep apnea in dogs may include:

  • Surgery—For dogs with flat faces, some surgical procedures, such as widening the nostrils or removing excess tissue from the soft palate, can help prevent episodes of sleep apnea.
  • Weightloss—Work with your veterinarian to make sure your pet with sleep apnea is a healthy weight. If your dog is obese, your veterinarian can help you develop a safe weight loss plan.

Management of narcolepsy in dogs may include:

  • Medicines—Antidepressant medications may be recommended to reduce arousal, possibly reducing episodes of falls. Examples include imipramine, clomipramine, fluoxetine, or venlafaxine. Stimulant medications can help with daytime sleepiness.
  • Change food and water bowls—Be sure to avoid glass feeders to avoid injury if your pet falls onto the feeder. Bowls should also be placed at least shoulder height to prevent accidental choking or suffocation if the pet falls into the bowls. Elevated food bowls are ideal.
  • Avoiding heights—If your dog has narcolepsy, avoid walking him where he could take a dangerous fall if he collapses. For example, dogs with narcolepsy should not be taken on mountain hikes.

Treatment of REM sleep behavior disorder in dogs may include:

Are sleep disorders more common in older dogs?

Not all sleep disorders are more common in older dogs. Dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, a form of canine dementia common in old age, often have insomnia. Older dogs are also more likely to suffer from chronically painful diseases such as arthritis. For these reasons, you may notice insomnia more often in older dogs.

However, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and REM sleep behavior disorder are more likely to first appear in younger dogs.

Cover image: Getty/Petra Richli


WRITTEN BY

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM

Vet

Dr. Rhiannon Koehler is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Master of Public Science…


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