Dog Narcolepsy: A Helpful Guide

By now you’re probably well aware of your dog’s greatest love. And no, sorry, it’s not you and it’s not food either — it’s sleep!

Dogs are famous for their naps, which often seem to occur just minutes after running around and playing. However, if your dog drops suddenly and is out like a light, it might point to narcolepsy, a relatively rare condition, but one that is seen in some dogs.

It can be very scary for an owner when their dog suddenly falls asleep, then wakes abruptly or seems to be rather lethargic for the rest of the day. And while the better news is that narcolepsy is rarely seen in dogs and present little danger even when it is, it’s important to get to the source of the problem, as narcolepsy can sometimes be a best-case scenario, versus conditions that have similar symptoms like canine heart disease, diabetes, and epilepsy.

This post will dig into canine narcolepsy and give you a full breakdown on what narcolepsy is, why it happens, symptoms to watch out for, and what you can do as the owner of a narcoleptic dog.

Can Dogs Have Narcolepsy?

Just like in humans, narcolepsy is a disorder of the nervous system, and more specifically, those mechanisms that control sleep. Narcolepsy primarily affects younger dogs and is linked to another neurological condition called cataplexy, which causes temporary muscle paralysis and a loss of reflexes.

When a dog with narcolepsy has an episode, he will suddenly collapse and stop moving, meaning he literally falls asleep. This often occurs when the dog is being physically active, which can be quite alarming the first time you see it happen. The dog will typically wake up abruptly and carry on like nothing happened.

A narcoleptic episode will last as little as a few seconds or up to several minutes. There is no specific trigger for narcolepsy, and an episode can strike when your dog is playing, excited, or even eating. It is not a fatal disease but should still be aware of to make sure your dog isn’t in a dangerous situation.

Narcolepsy in dogs is thought to have a genetic origin and seems to be related to a dog’s rapid closed eye movements, or REM. When a dog has a narcoleptic episode, they can have REM movements as if they are in a deep sleep, and their muscles will become slack. However, the dog may still be aware of its surroundings and “wake up” to an auditory or physical stimulation.

Because narcolepsy disrupts a dog’s sleep-wake cycle, it will cause them to be more tired and lethargic, although most dogs will recover from their narcoleptic episodes with no ongoing medical issues. Occasionally, an underlying brain disease is found, but this is quite rare.

What Causes Dog Narcolepsy?

There are several factors that seem to predispose a dog to narcolepsy.

Those dogs who are obese, inactive, or have underlying issues with their immune system are more likely to develop narcolepsy compared to healthy dogs. There is also a genetic component that researchers continue to study.

An inherited form of narcolepsy has been found in the Labrador Retriever, Poodle, Dachshund and Doberman Pinscher. This genetic defect is found in a chemical neurotransmitter called hypocretin, which is a gene involved in a dog’s normal sleep cycle. When a dog’s hypocretin receptors have abnormalities, it will interrupt the regulation of their normal sleep cycle, which can cause narcolepsy.

Narcoleptic dogs will produce a normal level of hypocretin in their brains, but they will lack the appropriate amount of receptors, which will affect their ability to control certain aspects of deep sleep. This genetic defect is actually shared with mice and even humans, however, further research is ongoing to find the exact cause in each species.

A dog that has narcolepsy will periodically fall into a state of deep sleep during his normal waking hours, often during times of activity. The dog will become partially or entirely immobilized, and will then spontaneously recover. Thankfully, narcolepsy is not life-threatening or painful to the dog.

However, sometimes there can be a secondary or underlying condition that is related to your dog’s narcolepsy. Your veterinarian will need to conduct a physical exam to review your dog’s physical and neurological responses and search for abnormalities. A narcoleptic dog will often show no obvious abnormalities during these tests, but those that do may have something else going on that is causing the narcolepsy. Dogs that are narcoleptic but with no other neurological issues will simply need their owners to pay attention and be aware of their condition.

What are the Types & Symptoms of Dog Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy in dogs is closely related to a condition called cataplexy. Cataplexy involves brief episodes of partial or complete muscle paralysis, often with a loss of reflexes. Just like with narcolepsy, cataplectic episodes are typically spontaneously reversible.

When a dog is having a cataplectic episode, his leg muscles will suddenly become weak and may also twitch. Some effects may also be seen in his face or neck muscles. Meanwhile, a dog having a narcoleptic episode could be playing and suddenly fall into a deep, possibly momentary sleep, then spring right back into action as if nothing ever happened.

If you suspect your dog may be narcoleptic, there are some common symptoms that you can watch out for:

  • Excessive drowsiness in the daytime
  • Prolonged periods of sleep during the day when they would normally be awake
  • Rapid onset of narcoleptic episodes, seen as periods of deep sleep lasting from seconds to as long as 30 minutes, with no apparent warning
  • Sudden loss of consciousness and collapsing onto their side or stomach
  • Paralysis of limbs, head, and torso during an episode (cataplexy)
  • Having difficulty waking up
  • Rapid eye movements (REM sleep), muscular twitching (especially around the face, eyes, and lower limbs), and whimpering during narcoleptic episodes
  • Episodes usually end when stimulated by petting, loud noises, etc.
  • An abrupt, spontaneous return to consciousness or wakefulness and resumption of whatever activity they were taking part in before the episode

How frequent narcoleptic symptoms are present depends on the severity of the dog’s condition. Some will only have a few narcoleptic episodes each month, while others may have dozens of daily narcoleptic bouts. No matter the frequency, the episodes should pose no greater threat to the dog and will resolve on its own.

How is Dog Narcolepsy Diagnosed?

Although narcolepsy is not painful or life-threatening to your dog, it is still important to have the condition diagnosed by a veterinarian if for no other reason than to rule other possible health conditions out. Often, narcolepsy is diagnosed based on its symptoms alone, which can come from you delivering a thorough history of your dog’s behavior to your vet and a detailed description of the episodes you have witnessed. It is even better if you can catch one on video.

You should also be able to tell your vet what your dog was doing before the episode occurred to see if there are any patterns for triggers. If you think you have identified a trigger, your veterinarian may try to instigate an episode in your dog so they can witness it personally, which will help them to prevent future narcoleptic episodes.

Your veterinarian will also conduct a thorough physical exam, which will include laboratory tests such as a blood chemical profile, a complete blood count, a urinalysis, an electrolyte panel, and neurological exams. These tests are used to help rule out any other underlying diseases, such as canine epilepsy, diabetes, brain disease, and heart disease in dogs.

If cataplexy is also suspected, your vet may also conduct a food-elicited cataplexy test (FECT), since cataplexy often occurs to a dog when he is eating. Generally, narcoleptic dogs will take longer to complete this test, and an episode may even be triggered while the test is being carried out.

Sometimes, your veterinarian may also conduct certain pharmacological tests to see if administering certain drugs will induce or reduce a dog’s narcoleptic episodes. Other times, these tests may be conducted in conjunction with the FECT.

How to Treat Dog Narcolepsy

Although there is no “cure” for narcolepsy, there is treatment available. However, treatment is only really considered if a dog has frequent narcoleptic episodes that interfere with his lifestyle or puts him in dangerous situations.

While the bouts alone do not put your dog in harm’s way, the episodes can occur at bad times that leave your dog vulnerable. Since you cannot supervise your dog 24/7, certain therapies can be a big help.

Medication is available for the treatment of dog narcolepsy, usually coming in the form of an oral tricyclic antidepressant. These drugs will treat the dog’s narcolepsy by blocking certain neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine. The drugs are generally very effective at managing the periodic paralysis that will sometimes occur along with the narcoleptic episode.

Other medications can be used to help relieve daytime sleepiness in your dog. Medications can also help to control the frequency and duration of the episodes. Hyperactivity medications can manage your dog’s excitability, which is often a trigger of a narcoleptic episode.

While none of these medications are a cure for narcolepsy, they will make your dog’s life more enjoyable.

Can You Prevent Narcoleptic Episodes from Occurring?

It’s always comforting to know that your dog is not in pain during a narcoleptic episode, but it is still difficult to witness your dog collapse during activity, no matter how many times you’ve seen it happen before. However, it can help to notice signs of an impending episode so you can jump in right away and provide comfort to your dog during the bout. This should help you to decrease the length and severity of the episode.

Dog narcolepsy will only require treatment if you think the dog’s episodes are interfering with your dog’s quality of life. However, you can help to make sure things don’t reach this level, by confirming that there’s nothing hazardous in your dog’s play area. This way, should an episode occur, your dog won’t collapse on something that could harm him.

You should also do what you can to protect your dog should he collapse while playing with other dogs. This can be startling to other dogs and may elicit an aggressive reaction. Generally, you should avoid dog parks if you have a narcoleptic dog.

You may not be able to stop your dog’s narcoleptic episode, but you should be able to identify some possible patterns or behaviors that may precipitate an episode. This knowledge can help you to reduce the frequency and severity of your dog’s narcoleptic episodes.

Together with your veterinarian, you will watch your dog for possible patterns in behavior, such as what activities or foods seems to be a trigger. You may not be able to prevent attacks, but you can reduce the frequency and duration.

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