Why does my dog walk around in the middle of the night? Here’s What to Expect

Why is my old dog having difficulty sleeping at night?

Interrupted sleep occurs for many different reasons. Here are some of the most common causes.

Yes, dogs can get cognitive dysfunction as their brains age. This is similar to dementia in people, but less understood.

The key features of dog dementia are:

  • progressive confusion
  • reversal of day-night wake-sleep patterns
  • poor adaptability to new situations/change of routine
  • There is no test for dementia in dogs (we cant get them to do the cognitive tests that people can do). Other brain diseases (eg tumours, meningitis) can also disrupt the sleep-wake cycle. Its also possible for night time seizures to be mistaken as just confused pacing – by the time you get woken up and find the dog, the seizure is over and the post-seizure disorientation is all you see.

    We may be able to diagnose other brain disease with advanced imaging and/or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) testing, but we need to weigh up the benefits and harms to your pet of doing these tests.

    Some types of pain become worse, or at least much less ignorable, at night. So while your dog may seem to get around okay during the day, its still possible that he can have trouble sleeping due to discomfort.

    Night time pain can result in:

    Spinal, joint or muscle pain can usually be identified on a physical examination. However, sometimes it can be difficult to identify a pain source (eg headache) or be sure what we have found is the cause of the night walking. In this case, we might do further investigation or an analgesia trial (or both).

    How does circling help with survival?

    Dog behaviorists believe that a dog’s need to perform the bedtime ritual of turning around in circles before lying down is inherited. Canine ancestors, such as wild wolves, did the same thing, and domestic dogs retained this genetic predisposition. Evolutionary behaviors like this one are aimed at self-preservation and are strong influences that persist for generations in the animal kingdom.

    Turning in circles before lying down is an act of self-preservation in that the dog may innately know that he needs to position himself in a certain way to ward off an attack in the wild. Some wildlife biologists believe that wolves sleep with their noses to the wind so that they can quickly pick up on a threatening scent. Circling allows the wolf to determine the direction of the wind so that he can best position himself. With a quick whiff, the wolf knows that he may be in danger and is alerted for a potential attack.

    Most domestic dogs are pets that sleep in our homes or in another safe, controlled environment. Even though they are not subject to attack by wild animals, our canine friends retained this evolutionary protective trait. So, like their ancestors, our dogs turn around a few times before lying down.

    Night-time waking in our senior pets is a common problem we hear from our owners. A good night’s sleep is essential for both dogs and people and when our pets wake up in the middle of the night, the disturbance can affect the entire family. Interrupted sleep in older pets can occur for many reasons including medical, behavioural and cognitive problems.

    For dogs with cognitive dysfunction, there is no cure and the treatment options are less straight forward. There are medications such as Anipryl and dietary supplements such as fatty acids and SAMe that claim to slow down the cognitive decline or lessen the symptoms, but the results are equivocal. Anxiety during the night can often be the most distressful symptom for our dogs with cognitive dysfunction so anti-anxiety medications such as Valium, Xanax or Trazadone may be recommended.

    If your dog is waking regularly at night, seek veterinary attention. It may be necessary to rule out some disease processes but sometimes in the early stages all that may be needed is to establish a good night time routine. Even though this condition may be frustrating, avoid punishing or scolding your pet. They are our aging companions, whom in their twilight years, will require more TLC from their two legged family members.

    Medical problems that may cause our dogs to wake in the night are disease processes that cause pain or discomfort or increase the need for your dog to urinate or defecate. Urinary tract infections, kidney disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal upset are a few of the common problems that may cause an increase need to eliminate. This increased frequency will be present during the day as well but are often more noticeable to the pet owner in the middle of the night. Painful diseases, for example, arthritic pain or some forms of cancer, will affect your pet’s ability to lay comfortably for prolonged periods thus breaking up his sleep. Dogs that feel discomfort may pace, pant, vocalize or be restless and these signs can be most pronounced at night.

    If your dog is starting to wake regularly at night, a visit to your veterinarian is indicated. With a thorough history and physical exam we will start to narrow down the most likely cause of the night-time waking. A basic blood test and urinalysis will determine if your pet has diabetes, kidney disease or a bladder infection. X rays or a trial of pain medication may be indicated if the most likely cause is arthritic pain.

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