Sundowner Syndrome In Dogs

image_postvs005_goodpetparent_sundowner-syndrome-in-dogsFirst, the great news: advancements in veterinary medicine and nutrition are helping our dogs to live longer lives now than ever before. But with longer lifespans comes a new set of challenges facing senior dogs, including arthritis, cancer, and the equivalent of human Alzheimer’s disease: canine cognitive dysfunction, or “doggie dementia.”

One of the symptoms of both Alzheimer’s disease and canine cognitive dysfunction is a behavioral disorder known as Sundowner Syndrome. This was first identified in humans when caregivers of people with dementia noticed that their patients became increasingly confused, agitated, and aggressive in the late afternoon or early evening as night approached. Although no one knows for sure what causes Sundowner Syndrome, researchers believe that it could be related to fatigue, hormone fluctuations, disruptions in the body’s biological clock, or altered vision due to changing light levels.

In dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction, Sundowner Syndrome can lead to confusion, restlessness, agitation, repetitive pacing, barking for no apparent reason, irritability, or neediness (causing otherwise independent dogs to become “velcro dogs” as night approaches). These episodes tend to be more common during the winter months when daylight begins to fade earlier.

Unfortunately, diagnosing Sundowner Syndrome can be tricky since there is no definitive medical testing that can be done to confirm a diagnosis. However, veterinarians have discovered that diagnosing and treating underlying medical conditions (such as arthritis pain) can sometimes help decrease the severity of cognitive symptoms in older dogs.

If you suspect your senior dog is suffering from Sundowner Syndrome, here are some things you can do to help:

  • Have your dog checked out by a veterinarian to address any untreated medical conditions that could be making the sundowning behavior worse.
  • Increase the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants in your dog’s diet. Your veterinarian can make recommendations for dietary changes or supplementation.
  • Start your dog on melatonin, a hormonal supplement that can help reset your dog’s internal clock and help regulate sleep patterns.
  • Consider starting your dog on Anipryl® (selegiline), a medication that increases dopamine levels in the brain and has been shown to reverse brain changes caused by canine cognitive dysfunction.
  • If appropriate, consider anti-anxiety medication to help alleviate more severe symptoms.
  • Keep the lights on where your dog sleeps to eliminate frightening shadows or dark, scary corners.
  • Create an evening routine for your dog and stick with it so he knows exactly what to expect each night.
  • Help burn off nervous energy with an afternoon walk or other form of exercise that your dog enjoys.
  • Incorporate massage into your evening ritual to help your dog feel more relaxed and less anxious.
  • Leave music playing overnight to mask any frightening sounds that may make your dog feel nervous or afraid.
  • Most importantly, be patient and compassionate. Dogs quickly pick up on our frustrations, and you want to reassure your dog that although he may not be the same as he used to be, he’s still very much a loved and respected member of your family.

Although most symptoms of Sundowner Syndrome and canine cognitive dysfunction can’t be reversed, with patience, understanding, and the partnership of a good veterinarian, they can be successfully managed - hopefully maintaining your dog’s quality of life well into his golden years.

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Positively Expert: Camille Schake

Camille Schake is a pet blogger, author, and former Registered Veterinary Technician. Through her blog Good Pet Parent, she shares information on pet health, veterinary terminology, and animal behavior and communication.


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