4 Sleep Disorders in Dogs

by JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

The average adult dog sleeps about 12 to 14 hours a day through a combination of daytime naps and nighttime sleep. Just like in people, sleep is key to a dog’s overall health. It also helps a dog feel more rested and energetic.

Dogs with sleep disorders might whine, cry, or frequently wake up during the night, become more sluggish during the day or seem more disoriented when performing normal tasks. Because sleep deprivation can cause a buildup of stress hormones, dogs with sleep disorders may also become more aggressive or develop other behavioral problems. In addition, a lack of sleep can weaken a dog’s immune system, increasing the risk of infection.

Here are four common types of sleep disorders that can occur in dogs and how to treat them:


Narcolepsy is a nervous system sleep disorder that primarily affects young dogs. It is commonly caused by a genetic disorder that leads to abnormally low levels of a chemical called hypocretin, which helps maintain alertness and normal sleep patterns. This genetic disorder can affect Doberman Pinschers, Poodles and Labrador Retrievers. Other narcolepsy causes include obesity, inactivity and immune system dysfunction. Sometimes, the cause is unknown.

A dog with narcolepsy will suddenly collapse on its side and fall asleep, usually after a period of excitement or physical activity (such as eating, playing, greeting family members, etc.). The muscles will become slack and the dog will appear to be in a deep sleep with rapid eye movement (REM sleep). External stimulation, like loud noise or petting, will abruptly wake up the dog. Narcolepsy is sometimes associated with cataplexy, which is muscle paralysis.

Narcolepsy is not life-threatening or painful. It is diagnosed based on clinical signs, so recording a video of a narcoleptic episode can help a veterinarian accurately diagnose this disorder.

Narcolepsy is not curable, but can be managed by identifying and minimizing the events that trigger it. Using comforting words and gentle petting can also help lessen the severity and duration of a dog’s narcoleptic episodes. Depending on how much the narcolepsy is negatively affecting a dog’s quality of life, medications that reduce hyperactivity, stimulate wakefulness, or manage the narcolepsy’s frequency and duration may be prescribed by a veterinarian.


Insomnia is rare in dogs and usually indicates another health problem. It can be caused by physical health issues that are painful (like arthritis or an injury), itchy (like fleas), or cause frequent urination (like kidney disease or diabetes). Anxiety, stress and pent-up energy can also lead to insomnia. In older dogs especially, cognitive dysfunction, which is caused by brain degeneration, can disrupt normal sleep patterns and cause insomnia.

A veterinarian will be able to determine the underlying problem and prescribe appropriate treatment. For example, pain medication can relieve arthritis-related pain, leading to better and more comfortable sleep. Acupuncture can improve sleep by relieving pain and anxiety and may even kidney function. For older dogs with cognitive dysfunction, diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids can improve brain function, and melatonin can regulate the sleep-wake cycle, both of which contribute to better sleep.

Other strategies for relieving insomnia include increasing physical activity during the day, scheduling playtime before bedtime, making the sleep area more comfortable (purchasing an orthopedic bed for an arthritic dog, for example), and using aromatherapy with lavender and chamomile in the sleep area.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is generally rare in dogs. However, it is common in obese dogs and flat-faced breeds like English Bulldogs, Boston Terriers and Pugs. With sleep apnea, excessive internal fat or abnormal respiratory anatomy can temporarily collapse or narrow the airway, jolting a dog awake for 10 to 20 seconds at a time. These constant sleep interruptions can leave a dog feeling tired and sluggish during the day. Loud, chronic snoring is a common sign of sleep apnea. Treatment options include weight loss for obese dogs, surgery and steam humidifiers.

Untreated sleep apnea can be life-threatening. If your dog is snoring loudly and constantly waking up during the night, seek veterinary treatment as soon as possible.

REM Behavior Disorder

Is your dog chasing a squirrel in his sleep? If so, he may have what’s called REM Behavior Disorder, which causes physical activity during sleep. For some dogs, this activity can become extreme or violent, such as running into walls or attacking inanimate objects. Dogs with REM Behavior Disorder will awaken normally without any confusion or disorientation, which makes this disorder different from a seizure. Treatment with a medication called clonazepam will reduce physical activity during sleep.

If you notice any change in your dog’s normal sleeping habits, take your dog to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Do not try to diagnose or manage the sleeping disorder on your own, as this could prolong your dog’s poor sleep quality.

During the appointment, your veterinarian will first perform a physical exam then conduct other tests as needed to diagnose your dog’s sleeping disorder. Once the disorder is properly diagnosed, work with your veterinarian to come up with a treatment plan that will effectively manage the disorder and help your dog get better sleep.

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