Unfortunately, there's no definitive test to determine whether a dog has dementia. Vets rely on pet owners to observe and report the symptoms that they see in their dogs.
Sundowning is considered a behavioral disorder that results from canine cognitive dysfunction. Signs of sundowning typically begin to show in the late afternoon or evening, as night approaches, and can continue throughout the night. Symptoms include:
Here are some things that can help who is suffering some sundowners syndrome. Every dog is different and you may need to try multiple things - or a combination of things - to find the best way to help keep your dog relaxed and calmer.
Pain is often worse at night. Dogs, particularly older dogs, might be experiencing pain from arthritis, for example. Other medical issues can also cause restlessness, which may be more noticeable at night because the house is quieter or because the pain is more intense at that time. It's a good idea to visit the vet to rule out the possibility of any pain issues that could be causing the restlessness. Sometimes treating underlying medical conditions can help to decrease or minimize sundowning behavior.
Your veterinarian can also discuss the symptoms your dog is showing and give an opinion on whether he believes your dog has canine cognitive dysfunction and is 'sundowning'.
Many dogs feel more secure with a routine. Feed at the same time, establish a regular time for walks, and go to bed at the same time every night. Anxious dogs can find this comforting and it will allow them to relax more readily.
This is a method that sometimes helps with dogs who haven't yet lost their eyesight. Flooding the rooms with light can help to eliminate any spooky shadows or indistinct objects that might be frightening to pets.
During the day, take advantage of the natural light. Open up blinds in all parts of the home that your dog visits. As natural daylight fades, start turning on lights throughout the house (LED light bulbs are perfect for this - they save significant amounts of energy over the use of the normal incandescent bulbs, and they typically last much longer). Keep the lights on until bedtime, when lights can be turned off. If your dog noticeably gets more anxious or agitated when the lights are off, you may want to try putting him in his own room with the lights left on all night.
Some people use night lights to try and help dogs who seem anxious when darkness falls. This seems to help some dogs, but if your dog still seems anxious, try unplugging the night light so that it's totally dark. Sometimes even the glow from the tiny night light is enough to illuminate weird shadows or objects and scare the pet.
Dogs who are losing their hearing may become more sound-sensitive. Sounds that they can't readily identify may be scary to them. Playing background music can help to lessen anxiety in some dogs. Classical music is a good choice, or you can purchase various pre-loaded calming music for dogs.
Just before the sundowning behavior begins in the evenings, try a pleasant and soothing activity to help relax your dog. For example, gently brush a dog who enjoys being groomed, or give your dog a little massage.
Melatonin is a naturally-occuring hormone that can help to reduce anxiety in dogs as well as promote a more natural sleep-wake cycle. In general, dogs who are less than 25 lbs can get 3 mg every evening, while larger dogs can take 6 mg. Give the pill one hour before bedtime.
Make sure to only use pure melatonin, not one that's mixed with other substances (like xylitol, which is toxic to dogs). If in doubt, buy melatonin that has been specifically made for dogs.
The best-known anti-anxiety wrap is the ThunderShirt. The Thundershirt uses gentle, constant pressure to calm anxious dogs. It has helped many dogs tremendously (as the name suggests, many people use it to calm dogs who are afraid of thunderstorms). It doesn't work on every dog, however it's an easy, drug-free way that has a good chance of helping. Put it on about an hour bedfore bedtime. Dogs can comfortably sleep while wearing it.
Some dogs respond well to extra exercise as means of alleviating some anxiety. Take a late afternoon walk or engage in some play time (if your dog still enjoys it). Be sure to tailor this exercise time to your dog's abilities. Older dogs with arthritis or mobility issues will need shorter, gentler walks.
Dogs may find their crates comforting when they are feeling anxious. Make sure the crate is lined with comfortable bedding, there is water available, and the crate is big enough for your dog to fully stand-up, turn around, and comfortably lie down.
Dogs who aren't crate-trained can be confined to a room with a comfortable bed and drinking water. If your pet is accustomed to sleeping in the same room as you, you could simply close the bedroom door and see if that helps.
Being crated or confined can actually increase anxiety in some dogs, so be sure to monitor your pet carefully.
If the pacing and restlessness is extreme, or none of the other methods help, it may be time to consider medication. Talk to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety meds or Anipryl, a drug that's used to treat dementia in dogs. Anipryl doesn't work for all dogs and for those that it helps, it appears to have a limited time span in which it helps. It's still worth a discussion if your dog appears to be stressed or anxious.
Dealing with sundowner syndome in dogs can be frustrating (especially when you're exhausted from lack of sleep!) but remember, despite the sundowning, your dog is still the same dog you've always loved. Be patient, be gentle, and understand that he isn't behaving this way on purpose. It can take time and some help from your veterinarian to figure out what method, or combination of methods, works best to help minimize the symptoms and allow your dog - and you! - to get some rest. Patience, understanding, and plenty of love will help to reassure your dog that he's still an important part of your family.