Is your aging dog up at night? A change in your senior dog’s sleep-wake pattern is one of the common signs of canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). If your dog is struggling to get a good night’s rest and you’re concerned that it may be related to CCD (aka dog dementia), hope and help are here.
By the end of this article, you will understand what CCD is, how to recognize the signs of cognitive dysfunction, what to expect from your vet, and how melatonin may help manage the sleep disturbances that are associated with this medical condition. (For more about the many benefits of melatonin, please read my companion article: Melatonin for Dogs.)
What is canine cognitive dysfunction?
Canine cognitive dysfunction is a relatively common disease in older dogs. It is estimated that CCD symptoms occur in 68% of dogs by the age of 16.6 In other words, nearly two-thirds of 15 to 16-year-old senior dogs have some manner of doggie dementia.
Equally important are the number of cases of cognitive dysfunction that go undiagnosed. According to research studies, in a group of dogs that are at least eight years of age, the incidence of CCD is expected to be around 14%. However, less than 2% have been diagnosed with this medical condition.8 The following table shows the percent of dogs at certain age intervals affected by at least one impairment associated with CCD.8
|AGE OF DOG||% AFFECTED|
A real-life example of how canine cognitive dysfunction disrupts sleep patterns
A couple of years ago, a gentleman came to me as a new client asking me to acupuncture his geriatric dog who frequently paced and barked at night. Though acupuncture can be helpful for dogs with sleep-wake cycle disturbances, I had never been asked to treat a case like this before. Hearing his story, I certainly developed a more acute sympathy for dogs who exhibit these symptoms and the people who love them, because both suffer.
The gentleman described his wife—the dog’s caretaker—as being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Like many moms, she was a light sleeper. At night, she would awaken when the dog began panting and pacing. She got up and tried to settle him by taking him outside, offering water, turning on a fan, moving to other rooms in the home, but nothing helped. The nighttime ritual had to run its course until the exhausted dog and woman fell asleep in the early morning hours.
I know this is not an isolated case of sleep deprivation for senior dogs and their owners because over the years I’ve heard many similar stories. In fact, if you have a senior dog, you may identify with these exhausted owners.
Since there are dozens of reasons why restlessness, panting, and pacing occurs in senior dogs, getting to the root cause can seem impossible, especially if there are multiple contributing factors. However, by taking your dog to your veterinarian for a thorough physical exam and appropriate diagnostics, and by taking a “wholistic” approach, restful nights can be a reality.
What are the signs of cognitive dysfunction in dogs?
Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome is associated with degenerative changes in the brain similar to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in people.6 These changes affect the function of the brain and can affect how your dog perceives the world, their mental state/awareness, and their ability to process sensory information.1,6
Often, canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome is first noted by owners as unusual behavioral changes. For example, an owner may notice that their dog is less responsive/connected to them emotionally, appears confused or disoriented, or has a change in established sleep-wake patterns—often increasing nocturnal activity.
If you are concerned that your aging dog may have this medical condition, watch for some common signs including:
- a change in the way the dog relates to humans (less engaged)
- pacing around the house
- disorientation (getting stuck in corners of the home or behind furniture)
- house soiling (having accidents in the house)
- changes in sleep-wake cycles
Can my vet test for CCD?
There is no single test for canine cognitive dysfunction, but your vet may want to run blood tests and other tests to rule out diseases that can look similar to cognitive dysfunction or may make its effects worse. Some of these tests may include:1,6
- Complete Blood Count (CBC) – looking for signs of infection and anemia
- Blood chemistry – looking for evidence of liver disease (which can sometimes affect mental ability) or diseases that may cause increased accidents in the house such as diabetes, Cushing’s disease, and chronic kidney disease
- Urinalysis – looking for signs of a urinary tract infection and/or diabetes
- Thyroid screening – looking for hypothyroidism which impacts metabolism and can manifest with neurologic signs
- Other diagnostic testing such as radiographs, CT scans, or MRIs
The diagnosis is presumptively made through the process of elimination—a senior dog exhibiting the right combination of symptoms with no other explanation on lab tests.
Altered sleep patterns and CCD
As discussed above, altered sleep-wake cycles are a common symptom both in Alzheimer’s and canine cognitive dysfunction.2,7 Depending on the canine patient, there could be other medical conditions or factors playing a role in sleep disruption including:
- arthritis pain in dogs causing an inability to settle/get comfortable at night
- blindness throwing off the dog’s internal clock
- an increased urge to urinate due to diabetes or Cushing’s disease in dogs
Interrupted sleep-wake cycles not only affect the quality of life for the dog, but also affect the quality of life for the owners. Pet parents often report that the quality of their own sleep is affected by the sound of their dog pacing and moving around the room, anxiety and guilt because their dog is appears uncomfortable, and their pet crying out when he or she gets “lost” and confused in their home.
How do melatonin supplements help dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction?
As animals age, the production of melatonin decreases.3,4,5,6 Younger animals and humans have higher levels of melatonin compared with adults of the same species.3,4,5,6
Melatonin supplementation helps increase the levels of melatonin in the body and encourages dogs to sleep appropriately.2,7 There is some evidence that melatonin may also decrease anxiety, which is another common symptom of CCD.1,3,5,7
Whether or not cognitive dysfunction is an issue for the dog, melatonin has another benefit. Senior dogs often suffer from impaired vision, and blindness affects sleep-wake cycles. Sleep-wake cycles can be altered with blindness because the brain does not receive the signal from light to produce melatonin.3,6 In humans, the condition is known as non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder, where the body’s biological clock does not match the traditional 24-hour day.6 Melatonin is used to reset the natural circadian rhythm and can be very helpful for blind dogs in this same way.6
Finally, melatonin can benefit senior dogs by reversing certain types of hair loss and treating certain auto-immune diseases. (I’ll cover these topics in an upcoming blog post.)
Taking a multi-modal approach to helping your senior dog
It is important to bear in mind that there may be several factors affecting your senior dog’s sleep pattern. For example, a patient may not only have canine cognitive dysfunction, but may also have a painful condition such as arthritis or a disease that may increase the urge to urinate such as Cushing’s, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.1,2,6 Diuretic medications, such as lasix (furosemide) for heart disease may also increase the need to urinate and disrupt nighttime sleep.
So, while melatonin may help your dog sleep, there may be other management techniques to consider as part of a multimodal approach to managing doggie dementia and other elderly dog issues.
How can I help my dog get a good night’s sleep?
At home, there are things you can do to help your dog (and you) get a good night’s sleep.
- Establish a nighttime routine that includes one last late-night walk so that your dog can urinate before bed. This will help prevent accidents in the house or your dog crying to go out in the middle of night.2 Additionally, having a nighttime routine will signal to your dog that it is time to settle and get some rest.2 Senior dogs (and humans) seem to do best with a consistent schedule.
- Ensure your senior dog has soft, orthopedic bedding to avoid putting pressure on arthritic joints.3 In our companion blog posts on arthritis, we shared ways to help care for dogs with hip dysplasia, but many of these treatments apply to dogs with other conditions as well. If you would like to learn more, please read How to Relieve Arthritis Pain in Dogs: The Ultimate Guide and Helpful Medicine for Hip Dysplasia in Dogs.
Speak with your veterinarian
You are your dog’s biggest advocate. I encourage you to talk with your veterinarian if you notice any behavioral problems or changes with your dog including increased accidents, pacing at night, or increased anxiety. Sometimes medication and/or supplements can be added or changed to better manage these health conditions. Your dog’s veterinarian is always the best source of wisdom in making those changes.
Finally, please find comfort in the fact that, through managing your grey-muzzled companion’s CCD symptoms and helping your dog get better sleep, you are improving your beloved dog’s quality of life.
- Clements, C. “Canine Cognitive Disorder.” Pet Health Network, 3 Aug. 2015, www.pethealthnetwork.com/dog-health/dog-diseases-conditions-a-z/canine-cognitive-disorder.
- DePorter, T. “Nighttime Waking in Senior Dogs.” Veterinary Partner, Veterinary Information Network, 14 Dec. 2010, veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&id=4952996.
- “Melatonin and Seasonal Alopecias.” Veterinary Practice, 1 Nov. 2013, veterinary-practice.com/article/melatonin-and-seasonal-alopecias.
- “Melatonin.” Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook, Veterinary Information Network, 1 Jan. 2015, www.vin.com/members/cms/project/defaultadv1.aspx?id=4692338&pid=451&.
- “Melatonin.” VIN Veterinary Drug Handbook, Veterinary Information Network, 30 June 2017, www.vin.com/members/cms/project/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=13468&id=7868548.
- “Melatonin: Side Effects, Uses, Dosage (Kids/Adults).” Edited by L Anderson, Drugs.com, 26 Mar. 2019, www.drugs.com/melatonin.html.
- Rosenthal, M. “When Pets Lose Their Sense Of Place.” Veterinary Practice News, 9 July 2013, www.veterinarypracticenews.com/when-pets-lose-their-sense-of-place/.
- Beaver, B. “The Aging Mind: Cognitive Dysfunction.” Wild West Veterinary Conference, 2013.