Q: We are having a big problem with our pekapoo. He is 15½ and seems to be hyperactive at night due to sundowning syndrome where he is very restless. He is going out three to four times per night. We have him in a calming vest, have given him Rescue Remedy and a Kong with peanut butter. Nothing is working and his agitation is increasing. We do not want to get him on tranquilizers.
Dr. Nichol: You must have taken mighty good care of this little guy for him to have reached such an advanced age. It is likely that he is suffering from dementia, called cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in dogs. The symptoms of this degenerative brain disorder are quite similar to Alzheimer’s disease of humans. The brain pathology is almost identical.
CDS is grossly underdiagnosed in aging dogs and cats. Many pet parents believe the worsening confusion, house soiling, restlessness, aimless pacing, pointless barking and loss of obedience skills are signs of normal aging. They are not. Opportunities for early treatment are being missed. In fact, 68% of dogs over age 14 have CDS.
Reversal of the sleep cycle is common. Many affected dogs become anxious at night, keeping their families awake. By morning they’re exhausted. A tranquilizer would not treat the underlying problem. Melatonin, given one to two hours prior to bedtime can help reset your dog’s internal clock. An antianxiety medication like trazodone or clonazepam could reduce his agitation and improve his sleep.
Your veterinarian can also prescribe antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and a special diet called Purina Neurocare. Additional supplements can protect your pekapoo’s remaining brain cells. Many treated dogs improve or remain stable for several months or longer but a few show little or no response. In the end CDS, like Alzheimer’s, is always terminal. We have good treatments but there is no cure.
Thunder Shirts (calming vests) and Rescue Remedy have not worked effectively in these cases. If your dog will extract food from a Kong, I would encourage you to continue. Challenging an older dog’s brain can help sharpen its function. You’ll find interactive food puzzles at nina-ottosson.com. Enjoy your pekapoo. Make every day count.
Dr. Jeff Nichol, a residency-trained veterinary behaviorist, provides consultations in-person and by telephone and Zoom (505-792-5131). Each week he shares a blog and a Facebook Live video to help bring out the best in pets and their people. Sign up at no charge at drjeffnichol.com. Post questions on facebook.com/drjeffnichol or by mail to 4000 Montgomery NE, Albuquerque, NM, 87109.