Sundowners syndrome–the worsening of dementia symptoms at night—is common in people with dementia and in older dogs, too. My family learned this when we took our 13-year old Labrador to the vet for behavior issues that turned out to be symptoms of canine dementia. There’s no cure for sundowning or dementia, but there are things you can do to help your dog feel more secure and less anxious. Here are the signs of sundowning in dogs and some ways to help.
What does sundowning look like in dogs?
More than half of dogs have at least one sign of canine dementia by 11 years, and the likelihood of dementia rises steadily after that. Some dogs with dementia seem fine for most of the day but as the outdoor light falls near sundown, they become confused and anxious.
Typical signs of canine dementia that may worsen late in the day include:
- Soiling in the house
- Repetitive barking or whining for no reason
- Constantly licking the floor or their body
- Acting irritable
- Forgetting routines (for example, forgetting they’ve already eaten dinner and waiting by their bowl)
- Panting, pacing, and other signs of anxiety
- Getting lost in familiar areas of the house and yard
- Sleeping less or waking often at night
- Eating less than normal or not eating
- Seeming unusually fearful during walks or car rides
If your dog has any of these symptoms, take him or her to the vet. The doctor can check for underlying medical causes (for instance, a newly irritable dog may have arthritis pain, not dementia). Your vet may also recommend treatments to slow or reduce dementia symptoms if they’re caught early enough.
What you can do for a dog with sundowners
Follow any recommendations your vet has for dietary changes, supplements, and medications. You can also help your dog by:
- Maintaining a regular daily routine of playtime, exercise, meals, and medication. (You may need to adjust the routine to sync with sunset after spring and fall time changes.)
- Giving your dog daily exercise and outside time, for fitness and for sun exposure to help regulate sleep cycles.
- Scheduling playtime early in the day when your dog is less confused and stressed.
- Providing toys to occupy their time and give them a bit of a challenge.
- Being extra patient with your dog when he or she seems confused or anxious.
- Giving your dog a regular lights-out time at night.
Other things you may want to discuss with your vet are putting a Thundershirt (a weighted garment designed to calm anxious dogs) on your pet in late afternoon and adding a melatonin supplement to your dog’s evening meal for better sleep. If your dog’s symptoms become more intense or if your dog starts snapping at people and other pets, see your vet.
Ways to keep your sundowning dog safe
Keep your doors and gates closed to prevent your dog from wandering. Make sure your dog stays hydrated, and keep tabs on their food intake. Keep small objects and hazardous chemicals out of your senior dog’s reach. Finally, be extra cautious and patient when introducing new people and pets to your dog, to reduce confusion and anxiety.