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How to Know If Your Senior Dog Has Sundowners Syndrome

Author:

The proud parent of an adorably sweet Boston Terrier and an incredibly faithful white Boxer dog. Short-nosed dogs rule!

Pet and owner, enjoying each other's company.

Pet and owner, enjoying each other's company.

My Boston Terrier has always been a happy-go-lucky dog with a busy disposition. However, things have changed since she’s entered her senior years. At age ten, she no longer likes to play roughhouse, nor can she jump on the bed without tumbling to the floor. It's not uncommon: Both of these scenarios are quite typical and a natural state for aging dogs.

For pet owners who might witness this gradual physical shift in a dog’s life, it’s normal to feel a sense of foreboding as one considers the inevitable heartbreak of losing a pet to old age.

As for me, what’s even more disconcerting are the strange and disturbing behaviors that my dog has shown in the last few months. These inexplicable changes prompted me to do an online search and set up a visit to the veterinary clinic for a geriatric condition known as Sundowners Syndrome in dogs.

What Is Sundowners Syndrome in Dogs?

In simplified terms, Sundowners Syndrome (also known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction) is a common degenerative and progressive dementia experienced by aging dogs that impairs a pup’s awareness and responsiveness to their once normal setting.

According to Dr. Becky Lundgren, a schooled veterinarian and partner for Veterinarian Information Network—in her research article Senility in Dogs—a recent study reveals that out of 69 dogs, 32% averaging the 11-year mark had Sundowners whereas 100% at 16 years or older suffered from this deteriorating condition.

Given these statistics, it’s no wonder why so many pet owners overlook the earliest stages of cognitive dysfunction, mistaking the disorder's subtle signs for a natural aging process.

So how do you determine if your dog suffers from canine senility?

There are quite a few key behavioral changes that can help you determine whether your dog has reached this point. Perhaps the most noticeable change by far is the disruptive onset of nighttime anxiety. Let’s look at the following table compiled with several common signs and symptoms.

Common Symptoms of Canine Sundowners

Excessive or Excited Barking

Aimless and Incessant Wandering

Unable to Process Tricky Situations (Getting Stuck)

Obsessive Licking

Disorientation & Malaise

Blank Stare (Fixated at Wall or Floor)

Nighttime Anxiety and Panting

Disruption of Sleep Cycle

Lack of Response to Trained Commands

Increased House Soiling

Pacing in Circles

Difficulty Recognizing Family Members

Senior Great Dane Seeking Comfort

Senior Great Dane Seeking Comfort

Sundowners a Slow Degenerative Condition

Sundowners develops over time, yet remains progressive and persistent. Even though the cause behind cognitive dysfunction (changes in the brain) remains unsolved in dogs, some researchers relate the condition to several plausible scenarios such as doggie fatigue, changes in hormone levels, visual impairments, or the biological clock going awry.

According to research attained by the Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, as noted in their educational pet disease series, 50% of dogs over age 10 will exhibit one or more symptoms of the syndrome. As the symptoms increase and the dog advances in senility, their behavior can compare with humans suffering from the neurological and physiological complications of both Alzheimers and Parkinson's.

Old dogs, like old shoes, are comfortable. They might be a little out of shape and a little worn around the edges, but they fit well.

— Bennie Wilcox

Management of Sundowners

Any pet owner dealing with the stress of managing a senior dog with cognitive issues may have to alter their lifestyle to help ease the severity of the said condition.

  • If possible, walking your dog three times a day eases restlessness in the evening hours.
  • Set up a slumber routine that allows for a full night’s rest without a potty break (earlier meals and watering hours)
  • Most dogs crave the comfort of human contact. Incorporating a daily massage toward the evening, readies your dog for sleep and allows them to relax in a more blissful state.
  • Ensure your pet has a warm sleeping location to help regulate body temperature.
  • Opt for orthopedic bedding such as the type my pet uses. Erognomic beds help reduce muscle aches and joint pains, and promote a better rest for your senior dog.
  • Playing peaceful music may help soothe anxiety and lessen restlessness.
  • If your dog suffers from visual impairment, installing a nightlight might be another option to help reduce anxiety because of confusion.
Senior Golden Retriever

Senior Golden Retriever

Possible Treatment Options

Note: If you suspect your pet has Sundowners, the very first thing to do is schedule a visit to your local veterinarian. Do not start any of the below meds or diet changes beforehand.

According to Camille Schake, the founder of the Good Pet Parent Blog, an author, and former Registered Veterinary Technician who wrote an informative piece Sundowner Syndrome in Dogs, she explains there are a few treatments that your vet may suggest:

  • Prescription of Selegiline, a medicine that triggers higher dopamine levels in the brain and reverses changes caused by canine cognitive dysfunction.
  • Anti-anxiety medications to help lessen the more severe symptoms associated with the dysfunction.
  • Dietary changes or supplements that increase the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants your dog consumes.
  • Melatonin, a supplement that balances hormone levels and can help regulate sleep irregular patterns.

My Personal Story

If you’re a senior dog owner looking for answers and dealing with this disorder just like me, then I’m certain you’re ready to do anything you can to help your pet.

First, know that you cannot fix the problem on your own. However, there is hope.

First thing’s first, make an immediate appointment to see your local vet. I cannot say it enough. Note that there is no cure for the syndrome, but your vet can help you with proper medications and supplements, and a better healthcare regimen. Do not wait. Your dog needs the love and care it deserves. You and your family deserve a break! I know. After endless nights, trying to care for my pooch without the proper sleep, the amount of anxiety and stress had taken a toll on my morale. I had no choice but to see my vet. Since then, my senior dog has made excellent progress and there’s less all-around anxiety and stress in our home.

Cited Work & Resources

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 ziyena

Comments

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 05, 2021:

So beautiful and so touching. Very well presented.

ziyena (author) from the United States on January 05, 2021:

What a tough and agonizing decision. I’ve been in that position before with my boxer when dealing with an advanced cancer issue. It’s the most difficult choice a pet owner will ever have to make, but if it’s done out of love and compassion we should never feel guilt, only the love. Thank you for your thoughts Peggy

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 05, 2021:

It is always sad when our dogs get into their senior years and start having problems. One of my mother's dogs had severe dementia. She finally had him euthanized before going on a vacation trip. It would have been too hard on him to be put in a kennel.