By John Gilpatrick
There’s no easier way to protect your health than consistently getting eight hours of sleep. And we have plenty of products and strategies—from Egyptian cotton sheets and memory foam to ambient noise machines and pharmacological aids—available to help make it happen.
Canine sleep is a different animal. While dogs who live with us tend to get their sleep when we do, that’s more a product of their environments than what comes naturally, according to Dr. Joan C. Hendricks, the Gilbert S. Khan Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “They’re not strictly nocturnal or diurnal. They’re social sleepers,” she adds.
The average dog should get somewhere in the area of 10 hours of sleep per day, says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus at Tufts University and author of Pets on the Couch. This will almost certainly vary from canine to canine, and puppies and senior dogs tend to get a lot more than that each day.
Learn more about potential issues that can disrupt your dog’s sleep and discover ways to help your pup get the rest he needs.
Signs Your Dog Isn’t Getting Enough Sleep
While there hasn’t been a lot of research on sleep deprivation in dogs, many of the symptoms experienced by sleep-deprived people are similar to those that we’d expect to see in dogs. “If your dog seems grumpy, forgetful, disoriented, or has difficulty concentrating or performing his usual tasks, sleep deprivation is one possible diagnosis,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor for petMD. Coates recommends that any dog who develops symptoms like these be evaluated by a veterinarian.
Do Dogs Experience Sleep Disorders?
It’s not exactly the same as human sleep apnea, but Hendricks says a canine variety of this common sleep disorder does affect dogs—especially Bulldogs, Pugs, and other short-faced breeds. The underlying condition goes by the name “brachycephalic airway syndrome,” says Coates. “Affected dogs have narrowed nasal openings, a thin trachea (windpipe), a long soft palate, and extra tissue that partially blocks the larynx (voice box).” All of these problems can make it difficult for dogs to breathe.
“While apnea causes us to stop breathing right away and prevents us from entering deep, dream sleep, dogs will continue dreaming and stop breathing for a much longer time,” Hendricks adds. This means dogs with apnea are even harder to wake up than humans with the condition, and they’re also generally sleepier during the day.
If you have a brachycephalic breed, and he’s snoring loudly and frequently, there’s a good chance he’s suffering from sleep apnea. Hendricks says dogs don’t live long enough for the apnea to negatively impact their cardiovascular systems the way the disease does in humans, but it’s still worth getting diagnosed and treated since brachycephalic airway syndrome and poor sleep quality may negatively impact a dog’s health in other ways.
Hendricks says dogs can also suffer from narcolepsy, which occurs when dogs fall asleep suddenly and at inappropriate times. “This tends to happen to dogs when they’re being fed or playing,” she says. “One Rottweiler I saw lost 40 pounds because they regularly fell asleep while being fed.”
Some dogs with narcolepsy experience fewer symptoms as they age, Coates adds. “Treatment is generally not recommended unless the dog is having multiple episodes per day,” she says. “When treatment is necessary, medications are available that can help improve the dog’s quality of life.”
Finally, there’s REM sleep behavior disorder that has been diagnosed in dogs. Dodman explains it this way: “When mammals sleep, they have two phases. In one, the body is somewhat active, but the mind is idle. In the other, it’s reversed. Normally, muscles are paralyzed during dream sleep. When that doesn’t happen, individuals may act out their dreams.”
Dogs with a REM sleep behavior disorder typically “howl, bark, growl, chew, bite, or have episodes of violent limb movement while they are asleep,” Coates says. “Treatment with the medication potassium bromide seems to reduce the severity and frequency of episodes in many dogs.”
Other Sleep Disruptors for Dogs
Age is another factor when it comes to sleep disruptions—with older dogs sometimes having more trouble falling asleep than puppies or younger adult dogs.
Hendricks says that like many older people, some senior dogs (especially those diagnosed with canine cognitive dysfunction, a condition similar to Alzheimer’s disease) go through sundowning. This means they may get confused and restless as night falls. They tend to pace a lot, and they may have trouble falling asleep.
Dodman also says dogs who have been in combat or have experienced something else that was extremely distressing may have PTSD. Trouble sleeping is a symptom owners should be aware of, especially if they’re adopting and don’t know much about their dog’s past.
How Important Is Sleep for Dogs?
The short answer: very.
“All day long, electrical activity is happening in our brain, and random, disorganized data gets stored in various places,” Dodman says. “We organize that in our sleep, and dogs do, too. It’s very therapeutic, and if you deny dogs that, they’ll kind of lose it.”
Hendricks adds that sleep helps a dog’s brain development, memory, and learning capacity, as well as his immune system. “Sleep-deprived animals and people are more prone to infections,” she says.
Many experts also assume that lack of sleep may contribute to your dog being in a bad mood—waking up on the wrong side of the doggy bed, if you will. Hendricks says this has been clinically tested on lab rats and humans, and results showed those whose sleep was disrupted had trouble learning and being flexible. It hasn’t been similarly tested on dogs, however, because of concerns that deliberately interrupting a dog’s sleep is cruel.
How to Help Your Dog Get a Better Night’s Sleep
If your dog is having trouble sleeping, regulating his exercise and stress levels can help. Hendricks recommends getting a solid walk in during the day and says that it’s even more important not to do anything with your dog before bed that might throw off his sleep routine, like playing an exciting game. Coates adds that if your dog is inactive and napping most of the day, it shouldn’t be too surprising if nighttime sleep becomes difficult. “Increasing the amount of physical activity and mental stimulation a dog gets during the day will help many dogs sleep at night.”
But if simple solutions like these don’t work, “talk to your veterinarian,” Coates says. “Depending on the underlying cause of a dog’s sleep problems, treatment with prescription medications, herbal remedies, nutritional supplements, or acupuncture could all help your dog get the sleep he needs to be happy and healthy.”