Sundowner's Syndrome in Dogs

By Lisa McQuerrey

As your dog ages, he may start to exhibit symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s in humans, also known as sundowner’s syndrome. He may be forgetful, disoriented or experience a change in sleeping patterns and normal nighttime behaviors. While symptoms can’t be reversed, they can be managed. Knowing what to expect can help you make your dog’s sunset years as full and enjoyable as possible.

Cognitive Disorder Syndrome

Dogs enter “old age” at different stages, with large and giant breed dogs becoming seniors at 5 or 6 years of age, mid-sized breeds at 8 or 9 and small and toy breeds as late as 10. Even with the best care, age takes a toll on all animals, and a variety of physical and mental health conditions become more prevalent. Cognitive disorder syndrome is a term used to describe mental impairment that can begin to manifest in the later part of a dog’s life. Sundowner’s syndrome is one symptom of diminishing cognitive function.

Symptoms of Sundowner’s Syndrome

Sundowner’s syndrome describes the propensity of a dog to sleep more during the day and become more active at night. The nighttime activity may be restless in nature. Your pup may pace, be irritable, uncomfortable and vocal. He may have accidents in the house at night or appear disoriented or confused. He may even walk into a room and get stuck in a corner, or enter a hallway and be unsure of where to go. Your dog may find even familiar places confusing at night, and he may need to be led back to his bed or kennel if he forgets where they are.

Diagnosing Sundowner’s Syndrome

Your vet will conduct a complete physical, including blood and urine tests and possibly X-rays, to rule out physical or health problems that may be promoting behavioral changes. Sometimes treating a medical disorder can decrease the severity of cognitive problems. For example, if your dog is losing his hearing, it can make nighttime disorientation even more distressing, but addressing the problem can help lessen anxiety. It’s helpful if you can provide your vet with details about your dog’s unusual behaviors, particularly changes in sleeping habits, energy levels and interaction with his human companions.

Prevention and Treatment Options

Preventive regimens started at early middle age can help combat the intensity of cognitive issues as your dog ages. While mental decline can’t be “cured,” symptoms can be managed so your dog has a good quality of life. Create a stimulating environment for your pup to keep him mentally alert and engaged. Regular play sessions and interactive toys can be beneficial as well. Your vet may recommend dietary changes and prescribe a mix of potentiated antioxidants to help combat free radical damage that can occur with cognitive disorder syndrome. Omega-3 essential fats can improve cognitive health. Dogs experiencing sundowner’s-related sleep problems may benefit from melatonin, a natural sedative.

At-Home Care

Creating a routine for your pup can help alleviate the stress of sundowner’s syndrome symptoms when they occur. If your dog was crate trained as a puppy, he may find the familiar environment safe and comfortable at night. Experiment to see what helps relax your dog when he experiences distressing sundowner’s symptoms. A prebed walk, massage, aromatherapy, music or leaving lights on can all help your dog feel more at ease.