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Sundown Syndrome in Dogs

Written by FOTP Team

Updated

older sighthound on sofa

Sundowner Syndrome is a behavior associated with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction – or dog dementia. If your dog’s started behaving differently as the sun sets, read on to find out why.

Dogs share many behaviors, habits, and symptoms with humans. Sundowner Syndrome is one. First noted in Alzheimer patients, ‘sundowning’ describes confusion that starts during early evening. It’s a behavior which affects 20% of Alzheimer patients but also affects people with dementia. 

In dogs, dementia is known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. Like human Alzheimer’s, it is thought to be caused by increased levels of beta-amyloid peptides in the brain. 

As a result of dementia, some dogs also experience ‘sundowning’. The syndrome occurs in late afternoon and more commonly during winter, rendering dogs nervous and clingy as the light fades. Although researchers aren’t quite sure what causes Sundown Syndrome, it could be linked to light and levels of melatonin. 

Look out for a pattern of these behaviors occurring in the late afternoon to early evening:

  • Pacing and restlessness
  • Disorientation – trying to leave through the wrong side of a door, etc
  • Anxiety 
  • Aggression or grumpiness
  • Irrational barking
  • Urinating indoors
  • Disrupted sleep pattern.

It’s thought that dementia affects around 50% of dogs aged 11+. 

It causes a set of common symptoms, although it’s always best to consult your vet for a professional diagnosis. If you don’t, you could miss the real cause: for example, ‘forgetting’ housetraining can be caused by urinary infection or diabetes, and unpredictable aggression can be a result of many different health conditions. 

Unfortunately there’s currently no cure for dementia (and SS) – but we have some suggestions that might ease your dog’s confusion and anxiety:

  • Ensure their sleeping environment is comfortable. A new bed could help, especially if your dog is also getting a bit stiff in the legs. You can choose an orthopedic or memory foam bed to improve your dog’s quality of sleep. 
  • Add a night-light to the room. Gentle light can prevent them from becoming confused.
  • Keep their routine steady. It’s more important than ever for your dog to know what to expect at bedtime.
  • Help them to manage stress. Don’t expose them to hyperactive grandchildren or puppies; walk on quiet paths.
  • A walk before bedtime can help them to burn off energy so they’re more relaxed and ready to unwind.
  • If your dog is capable, try a quiet memory game. Try scattering their food in a treasure hunt, or put out three cups and let them see you putting a treat underneath one – say “which cup?” and reward them with the treat when they show you.
  • Try anti-anxiety treatments such as massage… see below for our summary of ‘natural’ options. 

Once diagnosed, dementia can be treated with medication. Your vet may suggest a prescription such as an antidepressant (for anxiety) or Selegiline/ Anipryl (which can help to increase their natural level of dopamine). 

Melatonin is a popular option for Sundowner syndrome. It’s a naturally-occurring hormone which has a sedative effect and a capsule usually works quite fast, so you’ll see whether it helps in your dog’s case. Talk to your vet and ask them to recommend a hormone supplement. 

What about supplementing their diet? You can add natural ingredients to their food to help support your dog’s joints; consider supplements supporting healthy brain activity too. A supplemented diet has been proven to reduce the symptoms of dementia – so whatever stage your dog is at, it’s worth adjusting their nutrition. Look for foods and vitamins which contain:

  • MCT oil. Studies (like this one, published in 2018) have shown that feeding medium-chain triglycerides to dogs improves the symptoms of dementia. 
  • Antioxidants. Since they help to prevent deoxidisation in the brain, antioxidants are highly recommended for dogs with dementia. Boost your dog’s levels with a handful of blueberries or good-quality green tea.
  • Phosphatidylserine. An ingredient believed to promote neurological activity, including memory. It is present in egg yolks and liver. 
  • S-Adenosyl-l-Methionine (SAMe). This supports liver function, which aids in the production of dopamine and serotonin. Look for foods rich in methionine, like tuna and egg whites. 

Sundowner syndrome can’t be cured, but it can be reduced. Try improving your dog’s quality of life by offering some of these natural remedies. Note: Before trying something new with your dog, consult your vet. Their medical history will impact on the effectiveness and safeness of each of these remedies. 

  • CBD. Cannabidiol is relatively new to the market. Many owners have reported good results – it is thought to help to balance the nervous system, which restores tranquility and resilience. You can purchase CBD in oil form, making it easy to dose your dog. 
  • Massage. As already mentioned, massage can be a valued part of your dog’s nightly routine. You can visit a canine masseuse – if regular visits will cause stress, ask them to show you techniques to use at home. Touch between owner and dog stimulates the production of happy hormones like dopamine, which is a relaxant. So you can still see good results simply by settling down and giving your dog affection. 
  • Essential oils. Try lavender (which has natural calming properties) or geranium (an oil shown to reduce restless activity). They’re not suitable for putting on your dog’s skin or food, but can be used in a diffuser – place it somewhere out of reach, and start with a very low percentage of oil. 
  • Acupuncture or acupressure. These ancient Chinese remedies are still in use, and have been transferred to our beloved canines. Many dogs seem to get good results from acupuncture, which is the application of very fine needles to key points on the body. It’s good for dogs with arthritis or inflammation because it increases blood flow. And it’s sometimes recommended for dogs with cognitive dysfunction because it also stimulates the release of hormones.