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“Help! Why is my dog pacing and panting at night? He won’t settle down!” Clients call in a panic because their dog is suddenly panting, walking around constantly or pacing at night. Maybe you’re reading this in the middle of the night because you’re having the same problem. I sure hope not, but if you are, know you’re not alone.
The most common causes for dogs pacing and panting at night include pain, illness, anxiety, neurological and cognitive problems. These dogs find it hard to get comfortable at night, have difficulty lying down, and may cry or whine. I’ll help you play detective to hone in on the underlying cause.
Why Is My Dog Pacing and Panting?
Let’s discuss the three big reasons for restlessness in dogs that cover most situations:
Plenty of veterinary clients complain about their dog panting at night. They’re up at 3 a.m. wondering how to help their dog settle down and sleep. These behaviors can happen at any time of day, but it’s enough to drive a rational human to exhaustion when it happens at night.
Why excessive panting and pacing always seem to happen at night is up for debate. It could be simply because you’re home and trying to rest so it is more obvious. But some dogs might feel more disturbed when the house is dark and quiet.
Read through the following sections to get some ideas on why your buddy is pacing and won’t lie down.
He Doesn’t Feel Good (Pain or Illness)
- Arthritis & Joint Pain
- Digestive System Issues
- Neurologic/Back Pain
- Bladder Problems
- Drug Side Effects
- Cushing’s Disease
- Laryngeal Paralysis
- Heart/Lung Disease
- Heat Stroke
Dogs don’t have a great means of communicating with humans that they’re hurting. People don’t recognize their pet is uncomfortable until they stop eating or stop walking.
A dog owner sometimes thinks their dog is panting and pacing for no reason. But these behaviors are often a sign of pain. Painful dogs are unsettled and restless because they hurt too much to lie in one position for very long.
In dogs, pain can come from different medical conditions including:
Arthritis & Joint Pain
Osteoarthritis is very common in dogs over seven years old. Symptoms of musculoskeletal discomfort include stiffness, limping, decreased activity. Arthritic dogs often have a hard time settling down and pant a lot at night.
It’s hard to tell exactly where the soreness is coming from in some dogs. They seem to be restless, when in fact they’re just too sore to settle down for very long.
Digestive System Issues
Esophageal, stomach, intestinal, pancreatic and colonic irritation cause mild to severe discomfort. There may or may not be other symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, or decreased appetite. Chronic GI distress is common in dogs.
If you’ve ever experienced nausea, you know the feeling is impossible to ignore. Dogs who are nauseated from stomach irritation, pancreatitis, or medicine may become distressed. Pacing, abnormal panting and restlessness are their way of trying to deal with the unpleasantness of nausea.
Other symptoms of nausea include vomiting, eating grass, licking themselves, licking objects, drooling, increased drinking, and decreased appetite.
Intervertebral disc disease (slipped disc) is common in small and large breed dogs.
It can cause mild, chronic discomfort or severe, acute pain. Dogs with IVDD have a hard time getting comfortable and tend to pant more than usual.
They are often restless and won’t lay down due to back discomfort. Other symptoms include a dog yelping randomly, hiding, excessive panting.
I’ve written about my dog with back problems several times on this website. When she has a flare-up of back pain, I sometimes wake up at 3 a.m. to find my 13-year-old dog panting and shaking. Fortunately, more pain meds always help get her back into a comfortable condition.
Bladder infections and stones are common in senior pets and certain breeds of dogs. Common symptoms of urinary tract infection include increased frequency of urination, peeing in the house, straining to urinate, foul urine odor, and blood in the urine.
When a client says their dog is panting and restless, I always check a urinalysis as part of the workup. In some cases, agitation and heavy panting may be the only symptoms of urinary tract infection.
Drug Side Effects
Medication side effects can cause nausea, discomfort, hyperactivity and nervousness. If your restless dog is taking any medicine, ask your veterinarian whether it could be causing it.
Here’s a list of a few medications that might cause agitation or abnormal panting and pacing:
|Corticosteroids (prednisone, prednisolone, methylprednisolone)||Restlessness, aggression, increased thirst, hunger & urination|
|Opioids (morphine, buprenorphine and hydromorphone)||Hyperactivity, restlessness & panting in some dogs|
|Anti-seizure Medication (phenobarbital, gabapentin)||Sedation, panting, wobbly gait|
|Phenylpropanolamine (brand name: Proin)||Increased blood pressure, restlessness|
|Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatories (Rimadyl, Deramaxx, Previcox, and Metacam)||Stomach and intestinal pain, diarrhea, vomiting and restlessness|
|Sedatives (Xanax/alprazolam, Valium/diazepam, acepromazine)||Paradoxical restlessness, agitation|
|Antihistamines (Benadryl, Zyrtec)||Paradoxical hyperactivity, restlessness|
Hyperadrenocorticism, or Cushing’s Disease, symptoms are caused by overactive adrenal glands. The disease occurs in dogs at a rate of about 1 to 2 cases per 1,000 dogs each year.(1)
When an animal has too much naturally-produced cortisone, it’s like he’s taking large doses of steroids (prednisone) every day.
Symptoms include increased thirst, appetite, and urination, weight gain, pot-belly appearance, hair loss, and panting for no reason. The disease occurs more often in dogs 9 years and older so it’s a common finding for a senior dog panting at night.
Ask your vet about testing and treatment. There are treatment options that greatly reduce Cushing’s disease symptoms.
The larynx is the “Adam’s Apple” part of a dog’s throat that houses the vocal cords. If the nerve supplying that area becomes damaged, the larynx doesn’t operate properly.
Symptoms of laryngeal paralysis include increased panting, noisy or labored breathing, difficulty sleeping, changes in voice and exercise intolerance. Affected dogs tend to pant and pace when they have difficulty breathing.
Heart or Lung Disease
When an animal can’t oxygenate their blood properly, a feeling of panic and restlessness sets in. Occasionally, after doing the appropriate testing, we find out a respiratory disease or a heart problem is the reason a dog is panting and pacing so much.
There are many diseases that can affect a dog’s heart and lungs. Some of the more common forms of heart disease are congestive heart failure, bacterial or fungal pneumonia and bronchitis. In these cases, dogs pant due to oxygen deprivation.
If you suspect breathing difficulty, get your buddy to a clinic immediately as their condition can deteriorate quickly.
Heat exhaustion, or heat stroke, can occur at temperatures lower than you might expect. When I lived in the South, it seemed like we’d see a rash of overheated dogs every year on the first few warm days of spring.
Symptoms include excessive panting, weakness or agitation, and the dog’s gums and tongue might be bluish or very red.
Overheated dogs open their mouth wider than with normal panting and their tongue looks super long!
If you check a rectal temperature and it’s over 103 degrees F, your dog might be overheated. After wetting him down with tepid water, get him to a vet clinic immediately.
Heat exhaustion can be life-threatening even days after apparent recovery.
Solutions for Restlessness Related to Pain & Illness
The best approach is to find a specific cause for your dog’s symptoms and get the right treatment for it. Targeted treatment will save time and money and help everyone get a good night’s sleep sooner. Most dogs will need these basic diagnostic tests from their veterinarian:
- Physical examination
- Blood tests, urinalysis, and tests for Cushing’s disease if indicated
- Radiographs (x-rays), possibly ultrasound or other special imaging studies
Once you figure out what’s bothering your buddy, you can try some of the following tips in addition to whatever treatment your vet recommends…
Don’t Let Your Dog Pick Up on Your Stress
Maintain a positive attitude. Dogs are masters of interpreting human behavior. When pet parent shows worry, frustration, and anger it invariably affects their dog’s behavior.
Provide a More Comfortable Dog Bed
More comfortable bedding can make a huge difference for dogs who are sore or underweight. When it hurts to lay down, it’s tough to relax at night.
I recommend starting with a high-quality, thick bed that is larger than you think is necessary. Some dogs love having a bolster on at least one side of their bed. You might need to experiment to find one your buddy really loves.
I bought a couple of Furhaven “deep dish” beds several years ago and they’re still in good condition after many washes. My dogs love the thick memory foam on the bottom and the bolster around three sides.
Practice Regular, Moderate Exercise
Geriatric dogs are notorious for not wanting to get up and move around but it helps them a lot to have regular exercise.
Take your buddy on daily walks lasting at least 5-10 minutes. You can go longer if your buddy is up to it but stop early so you don’t overdo it.
Try taking a walk in the evening before bedtime, especially if your dog is restless and panting at night.
Exercise keeps a dog’s muscles and joints limber. And getting out of the house provides mental stimulation.
For dogs who can’t walk due to severe health issues, outings in a stroller like this one (Amazon link), or even a short car ride can be beneficial.
Activities to Stimulate Mind & Body
Boredom is not good for the psyche of dogs. They need something to think about, something to do with their minds. Sleeping 23 hours a day is not a luxury, it’s a sign of extreme boredom! Try some food puzzles and interactive toys. One of the most popular interactive dog toys I’ve ever seen is the Orbee-Tuff Snoop Ball® (Amazon link), shown below. Load it with low-calorie treats and your dog will have a blast rolling the ball around to get the treats out.
Or make your own inexpensive interactive dog toy by overturning a few plastic cups and hiding a treat under one of them. It may seem trivial to you, but this kind of “thinking” game has big positive payoffs for dogs.
Don’t believe the old adage that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. Any dog with a brain can learn and adapt but you might need to figure out the appropriate level of training for your dog.
Try using clicker training to teach your dog some simple behaviors like standing on a certain carpet to get a treat. Dogs love positive reinforcement training. And it’s very gratifying to see your dog make the connection between what you’re asking him to do and getting a reward!
Experiment with Your Dog’s Diet
Introduce some fresh foods to increase natural anti-oxidants and healthy fats in your dog’s diet. Ask your vet first, especially if your dog has health problems or a very sensitive stomach. Slowly introduce low-fat, bland fresh foods. Start with a tablespoon of pureed cooked green vegetables (broccoli is popular), baked sweet potato, or lean cooked meat. You might even try a homemade diet for senior dogs as I do for my pups.
Gradually increase the number of fresh foods your dog eats daily over a period of weeks. You can feed up to a third of a dog’s daily food intake from non-balanced fresh foods and not risk causing deficiencies.
Natural Anti-inflammatories and Joint Supplements
If your vet suspects pain is the cause of your dog’s pacing and panting, try some natural supplements before reaching for a prescription.
Natural anti-inflammatories like turmeric and Boswellia quell the hurt of age-related arthritis. Another non-drug joint supplement that’s worth a try is glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM.
Ask Your Vet About Prescription Pain Medication
If you’ve tried several of the gentler options but the result is not good, consider using a prescription analgesic. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) work well for more serious conditions.
Popular brand names include Rimadyl, Previcox and Deramaxx. These are quite effective at controlling physical discomfort but they’re strong medicines. They can produce serious side effects, so try some of the gentler options mentioned above first.
Dogs with severe pain may need more than prescription NSAIDs. Veterinarians often prescribe gabapentin, tramadol, hydrocodone and other opioids for these dogs.
He’s Worried (Anxiety)
Nighttime anxiety is another big reason for dogs pacing and panting while you’re trying to sleep. The cause could be from physical changes or from something that’s purely behavioral.
Vision & Hearing Loss
So you’re asking yourself, “Why is my senior dog panting and restless?” It could be from worsening vision and hearing. Although most dogs develop hearing loss gradually, you might not notice it until they’re nearly deaf. Most senior dogs have some level of hearing loss by age 12 (6).
Do your dog’s eyes look cloudy? That’s common in dogs over the age of seven, but noticeable vision loss is not as common as noticeable hearing loss. The reason is that as long as dogs have some vision they can compensate pretty well, so you might not notice mild visual impairment. Very elderly dogs are more likely to have trouble seeing, especially in dim lighting.
Sudden loss of hearing and vision can cause distress and worry, especially at night when light and sounds are not as strong as during the day. Dogs sometimes cope with this kind of distress by pacing and panting.
Separation, Noise & Storm Anxiety
Have you ever stared at the ceiling at midnight, worrying about something that happened during the day? Then you know anxiety and stress are enemies of sleep. The same is true for dogs.
Separation anxiety, noise and storm anxiety all prevent dogs from relaxing. If there’s something (or someone) new in the home or in their routine, some dogs react with pacing and panting heavily.
When one of my dogs was young, the minute she heard wind, rain or loud noises she’d start panting and shaking and wouldn’t leave my side! Even after she jumped on the bed with me, my dog was unsettled the whole time.
There may even be a noise bothering your dog that you haven’t even noticed. Machinery, fireworks and even the neighbor’s beeping smoke alarm battery alert can drive dogs crazy. I’ve used Adaptil® diffusers and Composure® chews with L-theanine successfully when my dog gets upset over stormy weather.
Solutions for Anxiety
Anxiety is a very common problem in dogs these days. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to decrease anxiety and help your dog feel more secure. After consulting with your veterinarian, check out some of the following options to help your dog calm down.
Most calming supplements contain l-theanine, an amino acid shown to decrease anxiety in noise-phobic dogs (4). The brand I recommend is Composure.
Adaptil is a pheromone-based compound that comes in the form of a diffuser, a spray or a collar. Pheromone therapy has shown promise in reducing symptoms of stress in dogs (7).
Animal behavior researcher Temple Grandin discovered steady pressure over the body relieves anxiety. A Thundershirt is a convenient way to use a body wrap on your dog. They are clinically proven to decrease behaviors associated with anxiousness in dogs (2).
Don’t scoff at this suggestion! It actually works.
Joshua Leeds is a sound researcher who developed a line of CDs called “Through a Dog’s Ear” with music to calm dogs. I’ve played them for many dogs and they seem to have a beneficial effect. The music is also pleasant for humans since the CDs use classical music you’ve probably heard before. I find that when humans are relaxed, their dogs will be more relaxed!
A white noise generator is another option to cover bothersome noises if the music is too distracting.
If you’ve tried everything outlined here without improvement, or if your dog is harming himself, call your veterinarian. I always save these strong medications for extreme cases due to their risk of side effects.
Often, drugs can calm your dog enough so gentler methods will begin to get through to him. He may only need to take strong drugs for a short period of time until behavior modifications take effect.
Neurologic or Cognitive Problems
Dogs of any age can be affected by a neurologic medical condition, including cognitive problems. Dogs over the age of about nine or ten experience these changes more often. The older a dog gets, the more likely they are to have one or more neurologic problems resulting from aging. This can result in excessive panting in older dogs, along with other symptoms.
Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS)
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) is also referred to as senility or dementia. CDS is a common cause for an elderly dog who is restless and panting at night.
Dogs over 11 years old are at increased risk for developing CDS, but it can start as early as 7 years old. The older a dog gets, the more likely they are to develop at least one symptom of CDS.
CDS symptoms include:
- strange behavior
- loss of house training
- poor memory
- abnormal sleep-wake cycles
- changes in social behaviors
- decreased play behavior
- decreased appetite
I almost hate to list this one because I don’t want you to jump to the conclusion that your dog has a brain tumor. However, the reality is that any dog can get cancer. According to PetCure Oncology, dogs over the age of five are more at risk for developing brain tumors. Brain tumors are not super common in dogs, but not also not rare.
If your old dog is panting and restless, walking in circles, has a head tilt and/or seems “not with it,” get a vet to check him. It can be hard to differentiate between brain tumors, cognitive abnormalities and inner ear problems but your vet can help to sort things out.
Solutions for CDS & Aging Dog Brains
If you and your vet determine your dog has symptoms of CDS, there are many things you can try to make your life with your dog more peaceful. Some of the following recommendations are more proven than others. Discuss supplements with your dog’s veterinarian, especially if your dog has other health problems.
Melatonin is an over-the-counter hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. It’s generally regarded as safe for use in dogs but ask your vet first. Melatonin given 30 minutes before bedtime may be just the thing to help your older dog relax at night.
Make sure you provide darkness, too! No leaving the lights or TV on at all hours of the night.
You can try these convenient chewable melatonin tablets made especially for dogs on Amazon.com.
SAM-e stands for S-Adenosyl-L-methionine. SAM-e is a chemical made naturally in the body from the amino acid methionine. SAM-e is beneficial in improving age-related mental decline (5). Denosyl® is a canine supplement that contains the right amount of SAM-e for dogs (click the link to view on Amazon.com). I’ve had hundreds of client dogs take SAM-e and recommend it for dogs with cognitive problems.
Senilife is a supplement that contains phosphatidylserine and pyridoxine to regulate and restore neurotransmission. It also has resveratrol, Ginkgo biloba and vitamin E to provide neuronal antioxidant protection.
Some of my clients and veterinary colleagues swear by Senilife (click to view on Amazon.com) for senior dogs who aren’t as sharp as they used to be. It’s worth a try for a senior dog panting at night..
MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides. MCTs are a special kind of fat that is metabolized into ketone bodies which act as an alternative energy source for aging brains. A 2010 study showed improved cognition in dogs treated with MCT oil (3).
Try this MCT oil supplement made specifically for dogs (click to view on Amazon.com) and start with very small amounts to avoid digestive upset.
If your dog is panting at night or pacing excessively, don’t panic. First, analyze the situation and try to figure out if anything has changed that might be bothering your dog. Choose one or two of the options discussed in this article and give it at least a week before you give up on it.
- Changes will take time, any sign of improvement is encouragement to keep going.
- Try only one intervention at a time so you’ll know if it works for your dog’s panting and pacing.
- If symptoms get worse, stop the new intervention. If things don’t improve, get a veterinarian exam as your dog’s health can change quickly.
- de Bruin, C., Meij, B. P., Kooistra, H. S., Hanson, J. M., Lamberts, S. W. J., & Hofland, L. J. (2009). Cushing’s disease in dogs and humans. Hormone Research in Paediatrics, 71(Suppl. 1), 140–143.
- King, C., Buffington, L., Smith, T. J., & Grandin, T. (2014). The effect of a pressure wrap (ThunderShirt®) on heart rate and behavior in canines diagnosed with anxiety disorder. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(5), 215–221.
- Pan, Y., Larson, B., Araujo, J. A., Lau, W., De Rivera, C., Santana, R., … & Milgram, N. W. (2010). Dietary supplementation with medium-chain TAG has long-lasting cognition-enhancing effects in aged dogs. British journal of nutrition, 103(12), 1746–1754.
- Pike, A. L., Horwitz, D. F., & Lobprise, H. (2015). An open-label prospective study of the use of l-theanine (Anxitane) in storm-sensitive client-owned dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(4), 324–331.
- Rème, C. A., Dramard, V., Kern, L., Hofmans, J., Halsberghe, C., & Mombiela, D. V. (2008). Effect of S-adenosylmethionine tablets on the reduction of age-related mental decline in dogs: a double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Veterinary Therapeutics, 9(2), 69.
- SHIMADA, A., EBISU, M., MORITA, T., TAKEUCHI, T., & UMEMURA, T. (1998). Age-related changes in the cochlea and cochlear nuclei of dogs. Journal of veterinary medical science, 60(1), 41–48.
- Tod, E., Brander, D., & Waran, N. (2005). Efficacy of dog appeasing pheromone in reducing stress and fear-related behaviour in shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 93(3–4), 295–308.
Last update on 2022-01-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API