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Surprise, Dogs Have Sleep Disorders Too

Why can't my dog fall asleep, can dogs get sleep disorders like humans do? If you thought that tossing and turning and having nightmares and other sleep problems are unique to humans, think again. Turns out dogs can have sleep disorders too. Sure dogs don't have to worry about balancing their checkbooks, going through divorces or other problems we face, but that doesn't make them immune to annoying sleeping disorders. If your dog shows any signs of a sleep disorder, don't just chalk it up to just one of those "things dogs do." Just like in humans, sleep disorders in dogs can affect their daily lives putting a dent in their physical and mental well-being too.


 Dog Sleeping Cycles

Dogs just like us, undergo several sleep cycles when they hit the pillow and drift into dreamland.

Drowsing is a transitional state during which the dog becomes gradually more and more sluggish. An electroencephalogram (EEG) at this stage appears irregular. 

Next, the dog drifts into slow wave sleep, also known as non-REM sleep. This is light sleep during which the dog is sleeping lightly and his body isn't fully relaxed -yet. Dogs in this stage awaken quickly if aroused and their EEG shows sleep spindles.

After a bit, the dog enters a moderately deep sleep stage where an EEG shows sleep spindles interrupted by delta waves.

Next, the dog will then enter the deep sleep cycle, which is a deeper stage of sleep characterizes by delta waves during which REM (fast wave sleep) appears.

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This is when your dog is busy dreaming about that squirrel who lives by the tree in your yard or that food you left unattended earlier laying on the counter. REM stands for rapid eye movement, and this sleep pattern is called this way because the dog's brain waves are very active during this stage and you can literally see his eyes moving quickly but so can his legs, paws, tail and facial muscles. Some dogs will vocalize too! The REM sleep stage is quite restorative, it's therefore important to let your dog enjoy his deep REM sleep without interruption.

Did you know? As with humans, dogs REM sleep is important as it's an important part of the sleep cycle during which stress is resolved, explains Paul Owens in the book "The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training."

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Dog Sleeping Problems

Canine Dementia

Dog sleeping problems cause a disruption to the dog's normal sleeping cycles. They can be primary or secondary to certain conditions.

If you notice any changes in your dog's sleeping patterns, consult with your vet and, if you still need help or a second opinion, you can try consulting with a board-certified veterinarian specializing in neurology who can help in identifying any underlying central nervous system diseases.

Recording the events may be helpful to your vet for diagnostic purposes, considering that dogs won't sleep at the vet's office. Telling your vet whether your dog can be roused from the event can also be valuable information.

Sometimes dogs may develop seizures that arise during particular stages of sleep which can sometimes be challenging to distinguish from REM movements. One distinguishing factor though is that dogs not affected by seizures can be awaken, and once awake, they show no coordination problems or confusion, which is in contrast with what happens during a seizure, explains board-certified veterinarian Dr. Linda Shell. 

For safety, it's best not to touch a dog to awaken him since some dogs may react aggressively when startled. Calling the dog by his name may be a better choice.

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Canine dementia has a reputation for disrupting a dog's sleeping patterns. Canine dementia, also known as canine cognitive dysfunction, is the doggy version of Alzheimer's disease and is known for causing senior dogs to have disrupted circadian rhythms affecting a dog's sleep and wake cycles, which means sleeping more during the day and sleeping less in the night.

Affected dogs may therefore be found aimlessly pacing in the night, vocalizing and acting distressed.

Some dogs may get lost in the home, getting stuck in corners and forgetting where they normally eliminate. Affected dogs may also start forgetting commands, and become less responsive to being called by their name.

" Affected dogs and cats may no longer exhibit standard sleep-wake cycles, instead, pacing +/- vocalization during the night. Cats sleep often during the day as a normal behavior, so these changes may be most noticeable for dogs." ~Karen Overall

Insomnia in Dogs 

dog blanket sleep sick

Dog NarcolepsyDog Sleep Apnea

Insomnia affects a dog's ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. It can also cause dogs to wake up too early. Often there is an underlying cause to restlessness and insomnia in dogs.

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Pain and discomfort can cause a dog trouble falling asleep. The pain may stem from acute or chronic conditions. Arthritis, herniated discs of the neck or spine or a gastrointestinal problems are just a few of the many conditions that can lead to a restless night.

If the dog is particularly anxious, he may not feel safe to fall asleep and may remain vigilant for a part of the night.

Dogs, especially young dogs, who have too much energy may also be restless and the last thing they may want to do is go to sleep. Certain medications may also affect a dog's ability to get sufficient sleep.


Sometimes things can go wrong in the dog's sleeping cycle, and narcolepsy may be a sign. In this sleeping disorder dogs are extremely sluggish and will suddenly collapse in lateral recumbency (on their side) and fall asleep. Often, these sleeping spells are precipitated by exciting events such as eating or playing.

Narcolepsy is really quite a rare neurological disorder, however there are more reports of it lately. It can be a hereditary problem in some dog breeds, but it can also develop as the result of a brainstem lesion, explains. veterinarian Dr. Loretta.

"The attacks are typically not life-threatening by themselves although certain situations such as hunting, swimming or off-leash exercise should not be allowed as they may cause harm. Some pets outgrow this condition." Dr. John McDonnell

A Dog with Narcolepsy

dog brachycephalic breed

Can dogs get sleep apnea? The answer seems to be yes, but dogs don't get to put nasal strips on their noses or wear those cpap machines so popular in people with this disorder.

Dogs for the most part affected by sleep apnea are brachycephalic, and being more on the obese side is a predisposing factor. The English bulldog is the poster child for this disorder.

Just as in humans, dog affected by sleep disordered breathing will temporarily stop breathing which can cause them to wake up multiple times in the night. These repeated awakenings interfere with getting their daily nose of uninterrupted, restorative REM sleep.

And just as in humans, dogs with sleep apnea may appear tired and sluggish and sometimes grumpy too.

Shedding a few extra pounds may turn helpful, but in some cases surgery to correct any extra tissues of skin can help open up the airway.

REM Behavior Disorder

Have you ever seen people act out their dreams? Well, something quite similar may occur in dogs affected by REM behavior disorder (RBD). These dogs are abnormally active during the REM stage of sleep and the violent motor activity during dreaming may therefore cause them to run into walls as in the video below, bite and attack objects.

This can obviously cause the affected dogs to get hurt and hurt others who are around them. To avoid this, affected dogs should sleep in a confined and well-padded area, suggests veterinarian Dr. Gabby. Veterinarians may also prescribe certain medications such as clonazepam, potassium bromide, and phenobarbital

"REM Behavior Disorder (RBD) occurs during REM sleep. During this REM state, the electrical activity of the brain is similar to the electrical activity that occurs during waking. Most dogs remain still even when they are having active dreams but, dogs with RBD lack this muscle paralysis, which permits them to act out dramatic and/or violent dreams during the REM stage of sleep."~Dr. Gabby

A Dog Affected by REM Behavior Disorder

Tips for Dog Sleeping Disorders

  • See your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment.
  • Consult with a neurologist for challenging cases.
  • Record the episodes and show them to your vet.
  • A night light may turn out helpful if your dog seems confused at night and tends to wander.
  • White noise may help calm down a dog who can't sleep due to noises.
  • A DAP diffuser placed right by your dog's sleeping area may be soothing.
  • Check the temperature. If it's too warm or cold, your dog may have trouble falling asleep.
  • Evaluate your home for critters. If your dog stares at the walls, vocalizes and barks at night it might be you a family of nocturnal critters living in your attic, basement, deck or walls.
  • Evaluate if there are any underlying anxiety causing triggers in your dog's life.
  • Ask your vet about calming supplements and sleep aids appropriate for dogs.


  • Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare, 5th Edition, By Donald M Broom, Andrew F Fraser, CABI; 5 edition (May 7, 2015)
  • Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, By Stephen J. Ettinger, Edward C. Feldman, Saunders; 7 edition (January 7, 2010)

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