“Help! My dog keeps panting and won’t settle down!” This distress call comes in from time to time from clients who have been up half the night because your dog is pacing and panting. Are you up in the middle of the night because of a certain dog who is panting and restless at night? I sure hope not, but if you are, know you’re not alone.
The causes for dogs panting at night include pain, illness, anxiety, neurological and cognitive problems. In addition to pacing and panting, the same dogs may be plagued by restlessness at night, difficulty lying down, and crying or whining. I’ll help you play detective to home in on the underlying cause.
Why Do Dogs Pant Excessively Sometimes?
Let’s discuss the three big reasons for dog pacing and panting that cover most situations:
I’ve had plenty of clients complain about their dog panting at night. They’re up at 3 a.m. wondering, “Why is my dog panting and restless?” Although it can happen at any time of day, it’s enough to drive a normally rational human to exhausted frustration when it happens at night.
Why abnormal panting and pacing always seems 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 (annoying). And some dogs might be more disturbed when the house is dark and quiet.
Read through the following sections to get some ideas on why your buddy is breathing hard and restless.
1. He Doesn’t Feel Good
Dogs don’t have a great means of communicating with humans that they’re in pain. In fact, most people don’t even recognize that their pet is uncomfortable until it’s severe enough to make them stop eating or stop walking.
Owners sometimes think their dog is panting for no reason but heavy panting and pacing are often a sign of pain. Dogs with a painful condition are unsettled and restless because they hurt too much to lie in one position for very long.
In dogs, pain can come from different sources including:
Muscle and Joint Pain in Dogs Who Won’t Settle Down
Aching from degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis is very common in dogs over the age of seven. Symptoms of musculoskeletal pain include stiffness, limping, decreased activity as well as having a hard time settling down and panting at night.
It’s hard to tell exactly where the soreness is coming from in some dogs, but sometimes they get so sore you’ll notice your dog keeps pacing and won’t lay down for very long. They seem to be restless, when in fact they’re just too sore to settle.
Get more tips for achy joints: How to Help Your Dog With Arthritis at Home
Stomach or Intestinal Pain
Esophageal, stomach, intestinal, pancreatitis and colonic irritation cause mild to severe pain. 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 is their way of trying to deal with the unpleasantness of nausea.
Nauseated dogs often have other symptoms like vomiting, eating grass, licking themselves or objects, drooling, increased drinking, or decreased appetite.
Neurological (Back) Pain
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 pain. Other symptoms include yelping randomly, hiding, panting and shaking.
Bladder infections and stones are common in senior pets and certain breeds of dogs. Common symptoms of urinary tract infection and inflammation are increased frequency of urination, peeing in the house or bed, straining to urinate, foul urine odor, and blood in the urine.
When a client says, “Why is my dog panting and restless?” I always check a urinalysis as part of the workup. In some cases, unrest 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 the unwanted symptoms. 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|
|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|
Commonly referred to as “steroids,” these drugs make some pets feel anxious. Corticosteroids also cause an increase in thirst, hunger and urination that can lead to restlessness.
Opioids are used to treat severe pain. This class of drugs stimulates some dogs to the point where they won’t lay down. But sometimes it hard to know if it’s the drugs or the pain when your dog keeps panting and won’t settle.
These side effects may show up during use or when they’re discontinued. Opioids have been known to cause some dog panting at night.
Phenylpropanolamine (brand name: Proin)
Vets prescribe Proin to control urine incontinence in dogs. Most do fine with it but it may have a stimulatory effect that leads to restlessness in some.
Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)
Anti-inflammatories work wonders for inflammation but they also cause gastrointestinal irritation. NSAIDs might cause pacing and quick respiration due to GI distress.
Even sedatives can make dogs restless. It’s a well-known fact that some dogs will have a paradoxical reaction to sedatives. Instead of becoming relaxed and sleepy, they feel anxious and alert.
Benzodiazepine drugs are the most notorious for causing paradoxical reactions in dogs. Acepromazine is another sedative that can cause agitated behavior.
Most dogs get sleepy or feel no effect from taking antihistamines. But a few dogs pant and may become paradoxically hyperactive, restless or anxious when they take antihistamines.
Also known as hyperadrenocorticism, Cushing’s Disease symptoms are caused by excessive cortisone production by a dog’s 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 of hyperadrenocorticism 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.
One of the most bothersome symptoms reported by my clients is their dog panting at night, often accompanied by pacing or general restlessness. It may be due to weight gain or feeling hot (nobody knows for sure).
Cushing’s disease’s tendency to cause frequent urination, constant hunger and an unquenchable thirst makes them even more restless.
Ask your vet about testing and treatment. There are a couple of treatment options for Cushing’s dogs that greatly reduce their symptoms.
The larynx is the “Adam’s Apple” part of a dog’s throat that houses the vocal cords. Muscles in the larynx become paralyzed when there is damage or degeneration of the nerves supplying the area.
Symptoms of laryngeal paralysis include increased panting, noisy or heavy breathing, difficulty sleeping, changes in voice and exercise intolerance. Affected dogs tend to pant and pace when they have trouble 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 this 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.
Watch for coughing, a bluish tongue. You’ll notice rapid breathing even while your pet is sleeping.
If you suspect breathing difficulty, get your buddy to a clinic immediately as their condition can deteriorate quickly.
Overheating can occur at temperatures lower than you might expect. When I lived in the South, it seemed like we’d see a rash of dogs with heatstroke every year on the first few warm days of spring.
Symptoms of heatstroke include excessive panting, weakness or agitation, very red tongue and gums, or the dog’s gums and tongue might be bluish.
I always notice heatstroke dogs seem to open their mouth wider than you see with normal panting and their tongue looks super long!
If you check a rectal temperature and it’s over 103, your dog might be overheated. After wetting him down with tepid water, get him to a vet clinic immediately.
This kind of trauma can be life-threatening even days after your pet seems to have partially recovered.
Help for Pain & Disease-Related Restlessness
The best way to make a real difference in your behavior is to find a specific cause and treat it appropriately. Targeted treatment will save time and money and help everyone get a good night’s sleep sooner.
With so many possible causes for agitation, testing is necessary to choose the best treatment. 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…
Put on a Brave Face
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.
Upgrade Your Pup’s 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 (Amazon link) that is larger than you would think 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 “deep dish” beds (Amazon link) over six 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.
One of my dogs on a Memory Foam Dog Bed (Amazon link)
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.
The exercise helps keep a dog’s muscles and joints limber and getting out of the house satisfies the psychological need for stimulus.
For dogs who can’t walk due to severe health issues, outings in an awesome stroller like this one (Amazon link), or even a short car ride can be beneficial.
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!
Upgrade 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.
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.
The intact vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats in fresh foods give dogs a health boost. It also provides variety and psychological rewards.
Read my article about What to Do When Your Older Dog Stops Eating.
Gingko Biloba, Bupleurum, cat’s claw, ginseng, Rehmannia… herbal remedies like these (and many others) have been used through the ages to treat human ailments. Herbs can also benefit dogs suffering from pain, anxiety, and cognitive changes.
Find a veterinarian trained in herbology if you want to try this option. There are so many combinations of herbs, you could waste a lot of time and money trying to choose the best one to treat your dog’s specific condition.
You can find a list of vets in your areas who work with Chinese Herbs on the Chi Institute’s website. The Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association’s website can also guide you to veterinarians versed herbology.
Remember, even though herbs are natural, they can cause unwanted side effects when used inappropriately.
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 without the harsh side effects of prescription medications. Glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM are joint supplements that lubricate aging joints and increase mobility.
- Zesty Paws Curcumin Bites Contains turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin, coconut oil and a black pepper extract to increase absorption.
- GlycoFlex 3 Perna canaliculus (green-lipped mussel), DMG, glucosamine and MSM lubricate joints and decrease soreness.
Want to try natural pain relief? Read this: Turmeric and Curcumin for Dogs
Alternative therapies are helpful for dogs with painful conditions like osteoarthritis. All these can be used in conjunction with natural or prescription pain medicines. Click on the links above to find a practitioner near you.
Prescription Pain Medications
If you’ve tried several of the gentler options but the result is not good, consider using prescription pain medication. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) work well for more serious pain conditions.
Popular brand names include Rimadyl, Previcox and Deramaxx. These are quite effective at controlling pain 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 prescribe gabapentin, tramadol, hydrocodone and other opioids for dogs with pain that can’t be controlled with NSAIDs. They are reserved for those dogs who really need them due to their negative side effects.
2. He’s Worried
Another big cause of dogs panting at night is anxiety. The cause could be from physical changes or from something that’s purely behavioral.
Vision and Hearing Problems
If your old dog is 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 a dog 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.
An anxious dog due to thunderstorm phobia.
If you’ve ever stared at the ceiling at midnight, worrying about something that happened during the day, you know anxiety is an enemy of sleep. The same is true for dogs.
Separation anxiety, noise and storm phobia 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.
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.
Help for Dogs With Anxiety
Anxiety is a very common problem in dogs these days. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help your dog feel more secure. After consulting with your veterinarian, check out some of the following options to help your dog calm down, settle in and stop pacing and panting!
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 anxious animals respond positively to steady pressure applied over the large surfaces of their bodies. 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 CD’s 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 CD’s 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 music is too distracting.
Sedatives/Anxiolytic Meds for Pacing and Panting Dogs
If you’ve tried everything outlined here without improvement, or if your dog is causing harm to himself, seek guidance from your veterinarian. I always save these strong medications for extreme cases due to their risk of side effects.
In many cases, 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.
3. Neurologic or Cognitive Problems
Dogs of any age can be affected by neurologic diseases, 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 she is 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. 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.
Dogs affected by canine CDS show strange behavior, confusion, wandering, loss of house training, poor memory, abnormal sleep-wake cycles, changes in social behaviors, decreased play behavior and decreased appetite. CDS is a common cause for old dog pacing and panting, especially at night.
A dog with CDS pacing and circling.
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 senior dog is suddenly pacing and acting weird, walking in circles 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.
Help for Dogs with CDS
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.
Click the link below to view 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 nutritional supplement that contains Phosphatidylserine and Pyridoxine to regulate and restore neurotransmission, plus Resveratrol, Ginkgo biloba and vitamin E to provide neuronal antioxidant protection.
This combination of nutritional compounds and herbs formulated to support healthy brain function in senior dogs. The manufacturer recommends starting dogs at age six and up.
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.
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 2021-04-12 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API