Sleep Disorders in Dogs

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Sleep disorders in dogs, such as insomnia or sleeplessness, are uncommon owner complaints. They are usually accompanied by only mild or moderate disruption of daily behavior patterns, which do not alter substantially the dog’s ability to function as a pet. However, insomnia is often an alarm bell of a more serious underlying condition. As such, when present, it should be brought at the veterinarian's attention.

Insomnia is defined as a sleep disorder characterized by a qualitative and quantitative impairment of sleep caused by an alteration of the normal sleep-waking cycle where the waking status prevails over the sleeping status. Insomnia is more often a symptom rather than a disease in itself, and it can occur as a result of a variety of emotional or physical underlying disorders. That is why the problem of putting your dog to sleep should be always faced bearing in mind the underlying functional disorder (if known).

The causes of sleeplessness in dogs include:

  1. physical conditions, such as pain from arthritis, hip dysplasia or some kind of injuries, parasite infestations (especially flea infestation), kidney problems, urinary incontinence, diabetes and allergies;
  2. emotional disorders, such as depression, anxiety and stress;
  3. prescribed medications, such as corticosteroids (e.g., prednisone), often used to treat a variety of autoimmune or allergic disorders;
  4. old age, which is often associated to the development of painful conditions (cancer, arthritis), kidney disorders, diabetes and behavioral changes caused by a progressive degeneration of the nervous system (in that case the resulting syndrome is similar to that caused by Alzheimer's disease in humans);
  5. lack or inadequacy of exercise, which can cause the dog not to be tired enough to have a good sleep.

Not surprisingly, sleeplessness and insomnia are more often observed in older dogs, since they are most likely affected by all the conditions mentioned above. It should be also underlined that insomnia is often accompanied by other signs that should cause a more serious underlying problem to be suspected. These signs include: frequent need of urination, increased consumption of water, swollen joints, joint stiffness, signs of disorientation or confusion, crying or shivering at night when the dog wakes up. When insomnia is associated to one or more of these signs, then a visit to the veterinarian is highly recommended.

Of course, treating the underlying condition (whenever possible) should be the first step to be taken. This may cure sleeplessness by removing the cause that produced it. However many conditions that can produce insomnia are not immediately treatable and require a long term (even long-life) management plan, whose effects on sleeplessness (if any) can become apparent only after a prolonged period of time. In these cases, an approach aimed at directly treating insomnia may be recommended.

There are a variety of remedies to treat sleeplessness in dogs, that can make putting your dog to sleep more easy and can help your dog have a full-night’s sleep or at least a better quality sleep. These include medicinal remedies (both natural and pharmacologic) and certain strategies directed to promote a good sleep.

Natural Remedies to Help Your Dog Sleep

Natural remedies have calming effects and are effective in helping sleepless dogs. They include herbs such as valerian and passionflower and aromatherapy. Valerian and passionflower should be used as tinctures and given to the dog about one hour before bedtime. The recommended dose is 4 to 8 drops of the two ingredients mixed in equal parts (the exact dose depending on the dog’s weight). Aromatherapy is another natural approach believed to be effective in calming dogs and promoting sleep. It consists in diffusing a few drops of essential oils with calming properties (lavender, valerian, sweet marjoram, roman chamomile or a combination of them) in the room where the dog sleeps. This can help dogs calm down and have a better sleep.

Drug remedies are usually vet-prescribed medications such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs. Of course the choice of the correct drug and its dosage depends on many factors, including the underlying cause of insomnia (depression, anxiety, pain, etc.), its severity, the dog’s physical condition and the concomitant drugs the dog is taking. Since drug remedies have often side effects, their use and dose should be carefully evaluated and determined only by the veterinarian prescriber.

There are however other strategies to promote a quality sleep in insomniac dogs. Some veterinarians recommend the use of orthopedic beds or heated beds for dogs suffering from arthritis. These beds are softer than regular dog beds, remove pressure points and help circulation, thereby helping alleviating pain and making the dog feel comfortable. It is also essential to place the bed in quiet area where the dog feels safe and confident.

Adequate exercise is important, too. Of course its amount and intensity should be commensurate with the ability of each individual dog to perform exercise. Even a slight physical activity can help the dog dissipate its energy and feel more tired at bedtime, thereby promoting a full-night’s sleep. Moreover regular exercise is also helpful to treat or prevent some conditions causing insomnia, such as depression, anxiety and diabetes.

Finally a mention should be made of toilet time. Some dogs wake up at night because they have to urinate. This is especially true for older dogs and those with certain health problems such as urinary incontinence and diabetes. In these cases a good practice is taking the dog outside before bedtime. Training him to use a wee wee pad is a good alternative, too.

Of course none of the remedies described above is immediately effective. However, through a correct combination of them, putting your dog to sleep and getting him to have a full-night’s or better quality sleep will become more easy over time.

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