In humans, a person who feels compelled to constantly move their legs may have a condition called restless legs syndrome, or RLS. This is often categorized as an itchy, irritated feeling in the leg muscles that results in an uncontrollable urge to move them to get relief. The sensation usually happens when the person is relaxed, such as at bedtime.
Is restlessness in dogs, especially when lying down or sleeping, the same thing? Can dogs have restless legs syndrome? Experts aren't sure if this condition exists. If your dog is restless or moving their feet during a nap, there's a chance it could be for a different reason.
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Can dogs have restless legs syndrome?
Pins and needles, throbbing, creepy crawlies — these are just a few of the descriptions of restless legs syndrome used by people who suffer from the overwhelming need to move their legs. Movement means relief, so the person with RLS moves their legs. People can explain what they're feeling and why they feel the urge to move their legs, so the condition can be diagnosed and treated.
If your dog is restless and suddenly paddling their legs while snoozing in bed, you might have a tougher time diagnosing the problem than a human doctor since your dog can't describe what happens in their dreams. Can dogs get restless legs syndrome? Scientists don't know and haven't yet figured out an effective system to find out. What is known, however, is that restlessness in dogs could be caused by myriad other things.
Is a dog restless, or are they dreaming?
A dog moving their legs in sleep might have an answer as benign as dreaming. Just like humans, a dog experiences three stages of sleep: nonrapid eye movement (or NREM), rapid eye movement (or REM), and short-wave sleep (or SWS). Scientific evidence suggests that dogs dream, and studies of the brain activity of dogs in REM sleep show similarities to humans. If your pup starts moving their paws or legs in sleep, they may just be dreaming of frolicking in a field or of you throwing their ball again.
If your dog's restlessness goes beyond cute little yips and paw paddling, however, it could be something known as REM sleep behavior disorder. This disorder is characterized by violent limb movements as well as such actions as howling, barking, or biting during sleep. While it's generally an issue with your dog's brain ineffectually moving between sleep cycles, at times it can be caused by a neurological or other underlying condition. If you suspect REM sleep behavior disorder, it's important to take them to the veterinarian to be assessed.
Is a dog restless, or is it tremors?
If your dog's restlessness is less erratic and more like repetitive, rhythmic muscle movements or tremors, it could be a sign of other medical issues. Tremors can be fast or slow, occurring anywhere, including the legs.
In general, if tremors occur when your dog is awake, if they are abnormally violent, or if you notice unusual tremors when your dog is sleeping, this may indicate an underlying condition. Causes for tremors may include pain, weakness, nervous system disease or injury, arthritis (particularly in older dogs), musculoskeletal injury or trauma, or side effects of some medications. These are all conditions that need to be examined and diagnosed by your veterinarian.
Is a dog restless, or is it seizures?
If your dog's restlessness moves beyond cute little leg movements and seems more uncontrolled or forceful, it could be a seizure. It is important to be able to distinguish between normal muscle movements and seizures. Seizures are sudden, abnormal surges of electrical activity in the brain that can cause uncontrolled muscle movements. If you aren't sure if your dog is having a seizure, try calling their name. If they respond and wake up, a seizure is unlikely. Dogs having seizures won't be able to recognize you or respond.
Seizures in dogs often include drooling, foaming at the mouth, stiffening, and loss of consciousness. They may also poop or pee during this spell. After a seizure, a dog tends to be disoriented, unsteady, lethargic, and sometimes temporarily blind. There's a host of reasons for seizures, including electrolyte imbalance, stroke, liver disease, tumors, epilepsy, heat exhaustion, diabetes, head injuries, and ingestion of toxins or poisons. If you suspect your dog is having seizures, consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.
The scientific community hasn't well characterized RLS in dogs and is not in agreement about whether it even exists as an ailment. However, if you notice that your dog is restless and you notice any signs that it's not benign dreaming, such as repetitive or unusual tremors or signs of seizure, it's time to have a professional examine them. There could be any number of reasons behind their restless legs. Your veterinarian will consider your dog's medical history, symptoms, and physical condition to make a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.