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Understanding Dog Howling During Sleep

Dog Howling During Sleep

Howling When Sleeping

It's one of the scariest things our canine companions do; indeed, a dog howling during sleep has been sometimes referred to as the "death howl." As terrifying and bone chilling as that might sound, fortunately, in most cases, the howling quickly subsides as Rover opens his eyes and realizes that he's in his safe haven surrounding by his toys and the reassuring presence of his family. Soon, he's up on his toes walking around or he's back to sleeping as if nothing ever happened. In most cases, a dog howling during sleep is just a normal part of life shared with a dog, but in certain circumstances, it can be indicative of trouble.

dog coughing after the bordetella vaccine

In most cases, a dog howling during sleep is just a dog who has had a bad dream. Yes, that dramatic vocalization is in most cases not a sign that Rover is in pain or suffering, at least, when it comes to the real world. What happens in the dog's virtual life when the dog transitions into doggy dreamland though may be a whole different story.

Dogs, just like people, have dreams and just like people they have good dreams and some not so good ones.

When your dog is twitching, paddling with his feet or maybe even chewing an imaginary toy, he is in a sort of way "acting out his dreams" but in a controlled matter.

What are these dogs dreaming? What dogs dream about is something we will never know, but it likely involves stuff that happen during the day such as chasing those pesky squirrels visiting the yard or stealing a tasty sandwich from the table.

 A Closer Insight

dog sleep

The dog's sleeping patterns are the same as it happens in humans. As soon as the dog catches his zzz's he enters very light, easily disrupted sleep, followed then by the non-rapid eye movement phase (NREM) and then come the deeper sleep stages, with the notorious rapid eye movement phase.

It is during this phase that dogs drift into dreamland. Indeed, the rapid eye movement phase (abbreviated as REM phase) is named that way to depict the quick eye movements seen when dreaming as if one was watching an imaginary movie.

During the REM phase of dog sleep, from an electrical standpoint, the dog's brain is very active. In this same phase, a region of the dog's brain located in the brain stem causes paralysis of the dog's motor neurons. This means that your dog may twitch and vocalize, but will not be able to get up while asleep and really act out his dreams. It is during this phase therefore that dog owners witness twitching, leg movements, rolling eyes along with vocalizations such as barks, growls, moans and even howls or bone chilling screams which wake up everybody in the dead of the night.

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REM Sleep Disorder in Dogs Howling When AwakeAt the Vet's Office 

When the howling takes place, a portion of the dog's brain is turned off and therefore Rover has no clue of what he is doing. He might just be as surprised as you are when he wakes himself up (if he does) and wonders what in the world has happened.

While a bad dream is most likely cause for a dog's howling during sleep, when the howling is accompanied by other symptoms or when it happens when the dog is actually awake and not actively sleeping, then there may be other causes for such behavior.

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Tip: as tempting as it may be to wake up a dog when he is sleeping and having a bad dream, it's best to avoid touching a sleeping dog. Dogs may react aggressively when their sleep is disrupted and the REM stage is the most restorative part of sleep. Best to adhere to the common wisdom of "letting sleeping dogs lie. "

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While they are not overly common, man's best friend can suffer from dog sleep disorders too and they can sure cause some odd behaviors. One possible cause for a dog waking up howling and acting distraught, is what's known as REM sleep disorder.

In this disorder the affected dog's motor neurons fail to undergo active paralysis with the end result of violent motor activity occurring during the REM phase when the dog is dreaming. This results in dogs vocalizing and even managing to bite or attack, explains veterinarian Dr. Gabby. " The dog is basically acting out his dreams."

Affected dogs may be prone to injury and dog owners can get injured as well if they're nearby the dog. To play it safe, it's best that dogs affected by this disorder sleep in a confined area such as a crate that's well-padded. Two medications may turn helpful for dogs with REM sleep disorder and these include, clonazepam and potassium bromide which can be obtained through a veterinary prescription.

Dog Seizure Activity

In some cases, seizures may the be the culprit for a dog who vocalizes and exhibits other behaviors. In the case of a seizure though, you cannot wake up the dog as the dog is not responsive. Affected dogs will therefore not respond to any stimuli (doorbell ringing, offering treats, calling the dog's name) while they are having a seizure. When dogs have a seizure they will also act "out of it" for some time before and after the seizure occurs.

A typical grand mal seizure where a dog falls over and loses consciousness, is unlikely to be the scenario in a dog who is vocalizing. More likely, it might be another neurological event taking palce, namely a petit-mal seizure, explains Critical Care Vet, a veterinarian specializing inEmergency and Critical Care.


A whole different story is a dog who is wide awake when the howling occurs. The dog therefore is not awakened from sleep but was awake in the first place. In such a case, it's important to ensure whether something may be going on. It could be the dog has acute pain, or is fearful of something.

Paying attention to any possible triggers in the dog's environment can be helpful considering that dogs often howl in response to sirens, other dogs barking or when left alone.

In some cases, in older dogs, howling during the night can be a sign of canine cognitive dysfunction, a condition that is quite similar to Alzheimer's disease affecting humans. The howling may happen at night, when dogs with this condition are awake wandering through the house often getting lost in corners.

Dogs with cognitive dysfunction tend to be awake at night because they tend to get day and night mixed up and therefore they are often seen sleeping a lot during the day and being awake at night.

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Affected dogs may benefit from dietary changes, such as increasing the omega 3's in the diet or switching to Hill's b/d diet, which is a "brain diet" meant to help dogs with this problem, explains veterinarian Dr. Z. Additional helpful supplements include Cholidin, Senilife and Novifit. Anipryl may be used as cognitive dysfunction progresses. Consult with your vet for specific recommendations.

Causes of dog hallucinations

If your dog's howling behavior is not triggered by dreaming or if it appears to be excessive and accompanied by other signs, you may want to see your vet. A video is worth 1,000 words when it comes to describing certain dog behaviors. If possible, get the episode on tape so that your vet can have a better insight of what is happening exactly.

Once at the vet, expect to answer several questions such as what the dog was doing before the howling, if he has been behaving differently, and what happens afterward. How often does it happen? What seem to trigger it? Does the dog appear "out of it" for some time?

Your vet will carefully examine your dog to check for signs of pain and may run some bloodwork and a urine test to rule out any underlying medical conditions. If the vet detects a pathology it will be treated based on the underlying cause. Challenging cases may require referral to a board-certified veterinary neurologist.

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