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.


15 thoughts on “Sundowner Syndrome In Dogs

  1. Tom Dawley

    I have a 13 year old Lab very personable and friendly dog. All of a sudden he started wining at night as if he was in pain...took him to vet and did all kinds of tests...could not come up with anything...during the day the dog was perfect...then as soon as the sun went down he would start...all over again....once we found out it was sun downers we treated it different..he is a little better but boy..when that sun goes down its like a switch goes a baby with their nights and days mixed now we are trying the exercise and trying to keep him awake in the daytime (lots of luck with that)...amazing how this happens to dogs...

  2. Pooka

    My 16-17 year old German shepherd/golden retriever/mutt rescue dog is showing signs of this. He's fine during the day and will generally go to sleep peaceably. Lately (and not every night, but becoming more often), he's been waking up between midnight and four and starts pacing our bedroom, whining, trying to wake up my husband or myself. If we don't get out of bed, he starts licking the furniture (including the fish tank). He will then sit and either stare at the fish tank or my closet (not, my husband's, just my closet). At first we thought it may have been weather systems passing through but reading this as well as several pages on dog dementia, I don't think it was/is weather systems. If it keeps up (as I think it will), I will be making an appointment with the vet to discuss his thoughts on what we can do to make Pooka more comfortable.

  3. Michelle Cory

    i havent seen any posts like mine. what can you do for positive reinforcent. when your dog has been loving all its life, and suddenly is having barking fits, and when called in the the fenced in patio, lunges on me and bites 15 times, ) a maltese)

  4. Michelle Cory

    Thank-you so much i just found the replys . i thought i was the only one .unfortunately i didnt have all this good advise, and had to put my baby down. I couldnt take it mentally anymore. I didnt care that my legs and arms were scared. just that she was getting worse, and wrongly diagnosed.

  5. Linda

    My 10 year old Manchester Terrier has started getting up numerous times each night. He wines and wants coaxed back to bed only to repeat it in just a few minutes. Sometimes he will nudge me awake and then just sit there staring at the headboard. I’ll try a night light or light music and see if it calms him…or me.

  6. Karen VanBrimmer

    My mixed breed (15 years old) started asking to go out every 15 minutes. She would stay out for less than a minute, come in and 15 minutes later bark to go out. Ritual repeated at least 4 times a night. Vet suggested Melatonin. First night I worried I would wake up and find her dead. Next night I tried half a Melatonin. Didn't work as well. Tonight will be the second night for a full tablet. Hope it works as well as first time. Vet also recommended fish oil (Omega 3) for her arthritis. Definitely sun downers.

  7. Christine

    I give my dog Charlotte's Web call me chicken flavored CBD chewies for dogs. This is made an enormous difference in my 15-year-old border collie who starts barking insistently after the sun goes down.

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