Investigating Nighttime Panic in dogs

Four reasons dogs become anxious in the wee hours.

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Eleven-year-old Tate, a German shepherd, has started to have anxiety attacks, usually at night, says her owner Sharon Nevins of Berne, New York. When they occur she pants, shakes, and is unable to settle down. It happened twice last winter and then three times in November. It takes three to four hours before they pass. Tate has been seen by her vet, who performed blood tests. But she seems okay. Her thyroid test came back on the low side of normal, and the rest of her tests were normal. Why can’t Ms. Nevins calm her down?

Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic Director Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DVA, DACVA, DACVB, says there are essentially four reasons for nocturnal anxiety.

1. A medical condition, often cancer (which cannot be diagnosed with a blood test), causes discomfort or even frank pain. “It seems that at night, when there’s nothing going on — just the ticking of the clock — there’s nothing to distract an animal from the pain and discomfort she’s going through,” Dr. Dodman comments. It’s true for people as well as dogs. There’s even a handout for the parents of young ones with cancer at Children’s Hospital in Boston, Dr. Dodman says, that tells mothers and fathers to be aware of the fact that their child may have a huge increase in anxiety at night.”

Dr. Dodman recalls one case of his own in which a dog was treated with painkillers and anti-anxiety medications for pain and anxiety it appeared to feel, mostly at night. The reason for any pain the dog might have been experiencing was unknown. But then one day, when the dog was walking, a bone in his leg broke. It turned out the dog had multiple myeloma, and his bones were hurting before a clinician could pick up on it. In another case of nighttime panic, the dog also seemed upset but for no apparent reason. Then, some months later, his eye started to bulge out. It turned out he had a tumor growing there. Once it was removed, the nighttime anxiety went away.

“There are lots of medical conditions that fly under the diagnostic radar,” Dr. Dodman says. The dog knows before the vet does, and it can cause her to be particularly anxious at night.” But he isn’t convinced a serious medical condition is what’s keeping Tate up at night. Keep reading.

2. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can precede unpleasant nocturnal experiences. “If there is a history of trauma,” Dr. Dodman says, “it can come to be accompanied by awful dreams and disturbed sleep.” He recalls one dog who was shot accidentally by a Boston policeman and then entered nighttime states of agitation and panic. “The dog’s owner and his adult son did not get a full night’s sleep for two years,” Dr. Dodman recounts. They each took turns keeping the dog company throughout the night to help keep him calm.

Since Ms. Nevins didn’t mention PTSD as part of Tate’s history, Dr. Dodman has his doubts that that’s the culprit.

3.Alzheimer’s disease may result in nighttime anxiety. In people with Alzheimer’s, nighttime agitation is called Sundowner’s syndrome. At night they pace continually and cannot settle down. The same thing can happen with dogs who have the disease, which for them is called canine cognitive disorder. To assess whether 11-year-old Tate could have canine cognitive disorder, Ms. Nevins would want to go through a checklist, considering whether she has been experiencing disorientation, changes in interactions with people and other dogs, sleep-wake cycle alterations (check), and house-soiling. One of these signs isn’t enough to make a diagnosis. You really need to see a constellation of symptoms for a vet to be able to diagnose canine dementia. That constellation doesn’t seem to be there.

4. Nighttime noise phobia can trigger the unhappy nocturnal state. “I had one patient who was freaking out most nights in the winter,” Dr. Dodman recalls. “He would pace, pant, and salivate. He was truly in a terrible state. I asked his family to put on a tape recorder at night to see if any noises preceded the panic attacks. It turned out the culprit was the crew of snow plows going up and down the road. To the dog, those plows going up the street, turning around, and coming back, sparks flying, were like fire-breathing dragons.” He was scared to death.

Another dog reacted to a change in a household heating system. “Whenever the new system came on, it made a clunk. The dog thought the ‘scary’ noise from the cellar was a ghost or something.”

Dr. Dodman suspects nighttime noise phobia having to do with colder weather may be what’s going on with Tate since his owner specifies that it happened last winter and didn’t start to happen again until November. (It gets cold in Berne, New York, starting in the fall; the town is as far north as New England.) “I would explore that potential first before going after more complicated reasons,” he advises Ms. Nevins, “especially since German shepherds are prone to develop fears and are known for a number of different anxiety conditions. The dog’s borderline low thyroid values could be a factor that’s tipping the pet in the direction of being more sensitive,” he adds. “It can cause anxiety in people, and in dogs as well. In some cases, if you correct the thyroid condition, you eliminate the problem.

“But one should also insulate the dog from the noise that disturbs her,” he says. “Use white noise or some other device to distract her.”

Ms. Nevins, please let us know how things work out.

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