Sundowners syndrome is a tragic medical condition that occasionally afflicts older people with dementia, Alzheimer’s, or some other type of cognitive dysfunction. However, this condition isn’t only a problem for humans; dogs can suffer from sundowners syndrome too.
As when it occurs in humans, sundowners syndrome typically causes a variety of personality changes. It may also trigger bizarre behaviors and leave your dog feeling anxious or depressed. These changes can complicate your dog’s care and make it difficult to keep him comfortable as he lives out his golden years.
Below, we’ll discuss sundowners in dogs and explain some of the most common symptoms that accompany the condition. We’ll also talk about some of the things you can do to help provide your dog with the highest quality of life possible while coping with the challenges the syndrome presents.
What Is Sundowners Syndrome?
Also called cognitive dysfunction syndrome, old-dog senility, or canine Alzheimer’s, sundowners syndrome refers to the general cognitive decline that sometimes occurs when dogs reach advanced ages.
Veterinarians aren’t exactly sure what causes the problem to manifest, but many believe that it is associated with the breakdown of the central nervous system, brain cell death, or oxidative stress. It may also be the byproduct of chemical imbalances in the brain, which may become more pronounced with age.
There is no cure for sundowners syndrome, and unfortunately, it is almost always progressive, meaning that your dog’s condition will deteriorate over time. Accordingly, dogs who are diagnosed with sundowners syndrome will battle it for the rest of their lives, and they’ll require an increasing amount of care as they grow older.
What Are the Symptoms of Sundowners Syndrome?
Although the exact symptoms caused by sundowners syndrome can vary from one individual to the next, most dogs will experience some combination of the following issues:
Disorientation is one of the most common symptoms exhibited by dogs with sundowners syndrome.
Your dog may, for example, appear to forget where he is, or he may run into obstacles that have been present for years. He may also fail to remember or recognize familiar activity patterns, such as when you return home after work or get ready for your daily walk.
One of the first indicators of sundowners is often increasingly frequent accidents. Dogs who’ve been house-trained for a decade or more may suddenly start pooping or peeing on the carpet or other inappropriate places.
Some older dogs may begin suffering from incontinence as their bladders and bowels lose function with age, but for dogs with sundowner syndrome, the problem may be cognitive, rather than physiological.
Many dogs with sundowners syndrome become quite cranky as the disease progresses. Some owners even complain that their normally sweet and affectionate dog begins snapping at people. Many dogs with sundowners also become less tolerant of other pets.
The cognitive decline associated with sundowners syndrome may cause some dogs to feel nervous or anxious more often than normal. Changes in your dog’s daily routine may make his anxiety worse, so it’s often wise to avoid drastic changes whenever possible and to maintain a consistent daily schedule.
Dogs with sundowners syndrome may begin waking up much earlier or later than usual or have difficulty staying asleep. Some may even begin sleeping during the day and staying up most of the night.
Occasionally, dogs with sundowners may even exhibit behaviors that are reminiscent of sleepwalking.
Dogs with sundowner syndrome may begin having trouble obeying simple and familiar commands. Afflicted dogs may also begin barking or trying to get your attention in other ways, without an obvious reason for doing so.
Other Behavioral Changes
There are a variety of other behavioral changes that may afflict dogs with sundowners, and each case is unique. Many of the behavioral changes you’re likely to notice will be subtle and difficult to describe.
Just remember to trust your instincts; if you believe your dog is acting strangely, he probably is. You know your pet better than anyone else does.
Which Dogs Are at Risk of Sundowners?
Any dog can suffer from sundowners syndrome, but it appears to be more common among some breeds than others. Specifically, it seems more likely to occur in small breeds, who usually live longer than their larger counterparts.
For example, Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds, and other giant breeds typically live relatively short lives and age very quickly. By contrast, Chihuahuas, Poodles, and other toy breeds may reach 16 years of age or more, and they often experience a more gradual aging process.
Think about it this way: Most dogs would probably suffer from sundowners syndrome eventually. But, due to varying canine lifespans, it doesn’t always have time to manifest.
Treatment Strategies for Dogs with Sundowners Syndrome
There isn’t a cure for sundowners, so most treatment strategies seek to address the symptoms. The goal is generally to keep your dog as comfortable as possible while limiting the most troubling problems as best you can.
Contact your vet if you suspect your dog may be suffering from sundowners syndrome and discuss the various treatments available. Your vet’s recommendations will vary based on your pet’s specific troubles, but some of the most helpful treatment strategies are detailed below.
There are a few medications that are sometimes helpful for treating dogs with sundowners syndrome. For example, anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed for dogs who have trouble relaxing, or antidepressants may be prescribed for dogs that seem to be withdrawing, sleeping more than usual, or losing interest in food.
Some vets may administer Selegiline or other medications that will help improve the dopamine levels in your dog’s brain. Some of these medications may even help protect your dog’s brain cells from further damage.
Many dog food manufacturers now market recipes that are specifically designed for seniors. Often, these foods have increased antioxidant content, which may help to protect an older dog’s body from the free radicals that damage brain cells.
Many senior diets also address other common problems seniors face. For example, they’ll often feature smaller kibble pieces to make it easier for older dogs to chew. They may also feature a bit more fiber, to help improve digestive performance (which may also help limit accidents).
There are a few over-the-counter supplements that may prove helpful for dogs suffering sundowners syndrome. Talk to your vet before starting any type of supplement regimen, but some of the most common and helpful ones you may want to consider include:
- Melatonin may be useful for helping ease your dog’s anxiety and promoting proper sleep cycles.
- Omega-3 fatty acids may help protect your dog’s joints and help him get around more easily.
- Probiotics can help regulate your dog’s digestive function. They may also help prevent accidents.
Many of the best ways to help dogs suffering from sundowners syndrome involve simple lifestyle changes, which you can implement at home fairly easily. Some of the most common strategies include:
- Make sure your dog has a very comfortable bed. Because many dogs with sundowners experience sleeping disorders, you’ll want to do everything you can to help your pup get a good night’s sleep. A memory-foam bed is a good start, but you may want to opt for a heated bed if he suffers from joint problems.
- Limit anxiety-causing activities as much as possible. Try to let your dog live as calm a life as you can to help prevent unnecessary anxiety. Don’t introduce new pets to the home at this time, be sure to give him a good crate he can retreat into when he’s feeling overwhelmed, and let him stay close by your side as often as he needs.
- Avoid rearranging furniture unnecessarily. Many dogs with sundowners experience memory problems, so don’t make things any tougher on your pooch than you have to. Try to leave the furniture (and other obstacles in the house) in the same places they always have been. Unless, that is, your home is particularly crowded or cluttered. In such cases, it may make sense to remove some items to free up a bit of space and make it easier for him to get around.
- Continue to stimulate his mind. Try to keep those neurons in your dog’s brain firing by continuing to provide him with toys (puzzle toys or treat-dispensing toys for added engagement), letting him explore new areas (obviously, with supervision), and working on his commands and tricks. You can even try to teach him new commands, just be aware that he may not pick them up very quickly (if at all).
- Go on more frequent walks. Walking more often will not only provide your pup with exercise. It’ll also keep his brain busy as he smells all of the interesting things outside and help empty him out regularly, thereby reducing the chance of accidents. Just be careful not to overdo it: Several short walks are probably better than a few long walks.
- Fit your dog with a belly band or diaper to help prevent accidents. Some older dogs may still struggle to “hold it” no matter how many walks you take, so a protective garment may be the best way to address the issue. Belly bands may help prevent male dogs from tinkling on the carpet, but girls (and boys with pooping problems) will require a full dog diaper.
Don’t Forget to Address the Common Age-Related Problems Most Dogs Experience
Sundowners syndrome is probably not the only challenge your older dog faces; he’ll likely also be suffering from common age-related ailments, such as canine arthritis, loss of sight due to cataracts, and more. Don’t forget to treat these issues, so your pal will enjoy more good days than bad.
For example, you may want to provide your dog with booties. These can help dogs get a better grip on slick floors, which will not only make him feel more confident while walking around, but it may prevent falls too. And don’t forget to keep his nails trimmed properly, as long nails can alter the way he stands, which can, in turn, exacerbate any arthritic pain he experiences.
You may also want to pick up some dog stairs (or build your own dog ramp) to give him easy access to beds and couches so that he doesn’t have to jump up and inflame his aching joints. Your dog may also appreciate a warm dog sweater or coat during winter walks (or while just laying around the house).
Sundowners syndrome is clearly a difficult and heartbreaking problem to face, but if you work with your veterinarian and make a few easy lifestyle changes, you can likely make your dog’s final years almost as enjoyable as his first few years.
One final note: Don’t forget to take care of your own emotional health and well-being during this time. Sundowners syndrome is a bummer of a diagnosis, and you’ll want to deal with the sadness it’s likely to cause.
Let yourself grieve for a few days or weeks, talk to a counselor or close friend if you need to, and spend some time remembering all of the wonderful memories you’ve made with your pooch.
Then, once you’ve gathered your strength, pull yourself up by the bootstraps and try to figure out the best way to take care of your buddy. He needs you now more than ever before, and this is your chance to repay all of the unconditional love he’s given you. Time is limited, and you’ll want to make every remaining day one to remember.
Have you ever had to care for a dog with sundowners syndrome? What types of treatments and care strategies proved most helpful for you and your pet? Let us know in the comments below.