Night-time waking in our senior pets is a common problem we hear from our owners. A good night’s sleep is essential for both dogs and people and when our pets wake up in the middle of the night, the disturbance can affect the entire family. Interrupted sleep in older pets can occur for many reasons including medical, behavioural and cognitive problems.

Medical problems that may cause our dogs to wake in the night are disease processes that cause pain or discomfort or increase the need for your dog to urinate or defecate. Urinary tract infections, kidney disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal upset are a few of the common problems that may cause an increase need to eliminate. This increased frequency will be present during the day as well but are often more noticeable to the pet owner in the middle of the night. Painful diseases, for example, arthritic pain or some forms of cancer, will affect your pet’s ability to lay comfortably for prolonged periods thus breaking up his sleep. Dogs that feel discomfort may pace, pant, vocalize or be restless and these signs can be most pronounced at night.

Cognitive dysfunction is a common reason for night time waking in our older dogs. This is generally a slow, progressive disorder that is similar to dementia in people. The hallmarks of the disease are increasing confusion, reversal of day-night wake sleep patterns and poor adaptability to new situations. Dogs with cognitive dysfunction will often sleep much of the day and be up a lot of the night. As the confusion and consequential anxiety progresses we see this as pacing and panting.

If your dog is starting to wake regularly at night, a visit to your veterinarian is indicated. With a thorough history and physical exam we will start to narrow down the most likely cause of the night-time waking. A basic blood test and urinalysis will determine if your pet has diabetes, kidney disease or a bladder infection. X rays or a trial of pain medication may be indicated if the most likely cause is arthritic pain.

For dogs with cognitive dysfunction, there is no cure and the treatment options are less straight forward. There are medications such as Anipryl and dietary supplements such as fatty acids and SAMe that claim to slow down the cognitive decline or lessen the symptoms, but the results are equivocal. Anxiety during the night can often be the most distressful symptom for our dogs with cognitive dysfunction so anti-anxiety medications such as Valium, Xanax or Trazadone may be recommended.

If your dog is waking regularly at night, seek veterinary attention. It may be necessary to rule out some disease processes but sometimes in the early stages all that may be needed is to establish a good night time routine. Even though this condition may be frustrating, avoid punishing or scolding your pet. They are our aging companions, whom in their twilight years, will require more TLC from their two legged family members.

Dr. Loretta Yuen D.V.M

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