Dog Psychology

Odd Night Time Behaviors in Older Dogs

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"Odd Night Time Behaviors in Older Dogs"
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Has your previously perfect pooch become the hound from hell? Is your household being held hostage to her bizarre nighttime antics? Would you give anything for an uninterrupted night's sleep? Strange nocturnal behavior in older dogs is actually fairly common. Learning how to interpret and address those behaviors will return some nighttime normalcy for you and your pet.

It's important to note that any change in your older dog's behavior or personality should be investigated. While the following list includes nocturnal behaviors commonly observed in older dogs, it is not inclusive:
-Confusion of day and night
-Pacing or wandering
-Barking or other vocalizing
-Toileting accidents
-Panting, trembling, or whining

There are several potential causes of these changes in your older dog's behavior. A thorough medical exam will determine if problematic behavior is due to one or more of the following:

1. Physical Changes
Just as with humans, aging brings dogs a variety of physical changes, many of which are unpleasant. Pain in aging joints can prevent a dog from sleeping and cause irritability. Losses in hearing and vision can result in insecurity and nervousness; losses of smell and taste may diminish appetite. Digestive abnormalities may cause diarrhea or constipation, which can make a previously housetrained dog "untrained".

2. Emotional/Neurological Changes
As dogs age, changes in the brain involving neurotransmitter activity may result in behavioral changes. An older dog may become less social and generally less alert. Or, they may develop anxiety disorders, showing either general anxiety of having actual panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by many of the common problem behaviors discussed above, especially vocalizing, trembling, and hiding. A dog experiencing a panic attack may also have rapid heart and breathing rates and excessively dilated pupils. These panic attacks almost always occur in the evening or during the night.

In his book, The Dog Who Loved Too Much, Dr. Nicholas Dodman discussed canine Geriatric Separation Anxiety, which he said involved an older dog suddenly "showing intense anxiety, particularly at night, keeping its owners awake by pacing, panting and pawing at them, constantly demanding attention." Dr. Dodman noted that most of these dogs acted relatively normal during the day. He believes that these dogs may see sleep as a form of separation, and that they react in the same way as a dog with a fear-based phobia would.

3. Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS)
Also called "Dogzeimer's", CDS is a canine version of Alzheimer's, in which physical and chemical changes in the brain result in memory loss and confusion. Just as some people with Alzheimer's experience "sundowner's syndrome", staying awake all night and sleeping during the day, dogs with CDS often do the same. Other symptoms include decreased interaction with owners; slower responses to sensory input; and trouble performing previously learned behaviors.

There are several things that can be done to alleviate your older dog's nighttime struggles. The first stop should be a visit to your veterinarian, where any underlying physical condition can be diagnosed and treated. You may also wish to modify your dog's environment to provide extra comfort (by providing a soothing sleep surface for an arthritic dog, for example, or by removing obstacles for a dog with failing vision).

Once any physical causes have been treated, it's time to consider anxiety. If your dog has been having panic attacks, you've naturally tried to console and help him. Unfortunately, this attention serves to reinforce the behavior, so you'll need to learn other ways to respond that will avoid that reinforcement. Other recommendations for treating anxiety in older dogs are increased physical and mental stimulation, and medication. Again, a consultation with your vet is in order.

If your dog is diagnosed with CDS, your veterinarian will probably prescribe Anipryl. This is a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor, which is used to treat Parkinson's disease in humans. A recent study conducted by the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine found that 76% of the dogs treated with Anipryl showed improvement within one month of use, especially in the most disturbing nighttime symptoms.

With proper treatment, effective behavioral and environmental modifications, and medication if necessary, your remaining years with your old friend will be more enjoyable for both of you.


More about this author: Christine O'Callaghan