Canine Sleep Disorders: Causes and Symptoms

From insomnia to narcolepsy, some of the common sleep-oriented problems that plague humans can also cause dog sleepless nights too.

Canine Sleep Disorders: Causes and Symptoms

The average pup will spend about half the day snoozing - though, there are variances in sleep schedule depending on a dog's breed, age, activity level, and underlying health conditions.

Just like humans, a lack of uninterrupted sleep can have an adverse effect on a dog's mood, memory, and immunity. Moreover, when our four-legged friends suffer from sleep disturbances, it often mirrors and influences the sleep patterns of their owners.

Thus, what often begins as a string of behavioral anomalies can quickly transform into an exhausting cycle of restless nights for entire households. Today, we'll dive into four of the most common sleep disorders found in dogs (and humans too) that warrant a consult with your veterinarian.

REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

During the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, it's normal for dogs to dream. Typically, neurotransmitters in the brain immobilize a dog's voluntary muscles, preventing them from acting out their dreams.

However, in REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, when the brain is active and it's harder to wake up, you may witness dream enactment in the form of violent limb movement, growling, barking, or biting. This behavior can be confusing and aggressive in nature and may lead your dog to inadvertently hurt itself.

Interestingly, this sleepwalking-adjacent disorder is most often observed in younger dogs (64% under one year) rather than developing in old age, as is the case for humans. There also doesn't appear to be any notable predisposition to the disorder based on sex or breed.

In terms of treatment, potassium bromide - an anticonvulsant and sedative - is a frequent remedy for pups afflicted by this condition. Notably, one study found that the severity and recurrence of episodes decreased in 78% of dogs treated with daily doses of potassium bromide.


Just as humans toss and turn at night, dogs, too, struggle with insomnia. Most often, this sleep disorder is a reaction to an underlying medical issue or external trigger. For example, environmental factors like a change in routine, new surroundings, or loud noises can contribute to your dog's pacing and sleeplessness.

Similar to the protocol for sleep-deprived humans, sleep aids are a potential solution for insomniac pups. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Knowing your dog's favorite cozy spot, comfort blankets, preferred background noise, etc, is all part of supporting a healthy, serene sleep routine over time. Some particularly anxious pups may even benefit from pheromone products in the form of special collars or diffusers.

Finally, veterinarians can prescribe dog-safe dosages of diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to help your canine companion get some rest. As always, make sure to consult your vet before reaching into the medicine cabinet. Although there are similarities in sleep disorders between humans and dogs, one should never assume that they are medically treated the same way.


Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects the brain's ability to regulate the natural sleep-wake cycle. Dogs suffering from narcolepsy might experience sudden bouts of sleepiness akin to fainting, even in the middle of an activity, which can be very frightening for any dog parent to witness. Such episodes may be brief, lasting only a few seconds, but some pups need several minutes to recover.

Besides sudden falls (cataplexy), additional signs of this disorder include fragmented sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. Research suggests that this condition is caused by a gene mutation, manifesting "between four and six months" in afflicted pups.

Along these lines, there are specific breeds that may be more prone to inheriting canine narcolepsy (ex.Dobermans, Daschunds, and Labrador Retrievers). That said, any dog breed can acquire this sleep disorder due to "decreased hypocretin production."

Though quite visibly distressing, canine narcolepsy can usually be managed effectively through lifestyle changes. Being aware and cautious of your dog's surroundings becomes crucial so as to avoid unintentional injury during an episode. Steering clear of heights, elevating food bowls, putting up staircase gates, and always accompanying your dog while swimming are some example precautions to help your dog stay safe while still living life to the fullest!

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

This disorder, in both humans and canines, is characterized by periodic interruptions in breathing during sleep. Dogs with OSA may be observed snoring loudly, making choking sounds, having difficulty breathing, or even experiencing brief moments of apnea where they stop breathing entirely.

OSA is especially pertinent to Brachycephalic breeds like bulldogs or pugs who are at heightened risk due to their (adorably) smooshed, flat-faced facial structure.

Continuous disruptions in sleep caused by this disorder can lead to daytime fatigue and irritability, frequently overlapping with other health issues. For instance, allergies or severe obesity in dogs puts excess pressure on their airways, exacerbating the occurrence of OSA.

Regarding treatment, surgery to help clear the nose and throat is a suggested route for some dogs whose breathing issues stem from blocked airways. There's also promising research on ondansetron used to mitigate OSA in dogs.

As for continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices routinely used to manage OSA in humans, such treatments have yet to be approved for pets. Like the previous three disorders explored, tracking your pup's sleep patterns and symptoms can lead to early detection and appropriate intervention.

Bottom Line

Our dogs are more than just pets; they're family. As such, their well-being directly influences our lives, and vice versa. Therefore, recognizing and understanding canine sleep disorders is more than just a pursuit of knowledge; it's an act of compassion, ensuring that our four-legged companions get restorative rest that serves as a foundation for their overall health.

Thus, being equipped with knowledge about potential sleep disruptions, their known causes, and possible treatments not only strengthens the bond we share with our pets but reinforces a mutual journey toward holistic well-being.

In all, humans and dogs share many parallels in the realm of sleep. By safeguarding our pup's sleep health, we're not only ensuring their happiness and longevity but fortifying the harmonious rhythm of our shared lives.

How's your dog's sleep schedule? Let us know in the comments whether you or your pup have experienced any of these sleep disturbances, and stay tuned for more dog news and research!