Narcolepsy in Dogs

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Imagine this. Your dog is darting about the yard playing a rigorous game of fetch. He suddenly drops to the ground and lies perfectly still. Is he tired? Is he having a heart attack? He’s probably having a narcoleptic episode.

What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a disorder of the nervous system, affecting primarily young dogs and cats. A narcoleptic episode involves sudden collapse and loss of movement. The pet literally falls asleep, often while physically active, then wakes up abruptly and proceeds as if nothing happened. Narcolepsy is often linked to another neurologic disorder called cataplexy that results in temporary muscle paralysis and loss of reflexes. Episodes last a few seconds or several minutes and often occur when the pet is eating, playing, or excited. Neither is a fatal disease, but both merit attention.

In a narcoleptic episode, an animal may abruptly lose consciousness, fall on its side or stomach, and lie perfectly still, as if napping. Like in deep sleep, rapid closed eye movements (REM) may occur and muscles become slack, but the dog may still be aware of his surroundings. Often, the dog will abruptly come out of an episode after auditory or physical stimulation.

What causes narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is usually a congenital/inherited condition, but it may also be associated with other diseases such as obesity or immune system disorders. Researchers have identified an inherited form of the disease in Doberman Pinschers, caused by a genetic defect involving a chemical neurotransmitter called hypocretin. Abnormalities in hypocretin receptors interrupt the regulation of normal sleep cycles. Abnormalities in hypocretin receptors in other dogs such as Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, and Dachshunds have also been identified.


How is narcolepsy diagnosed?

Narcolepsy is not painful or life threatening, but diagnosis by a veterinarian is still important. Narcolepsy is usually identified based on the symptoms alone, so a thorough history of your dog’s behavior and a detailed description of the attacks are critical. Try to film an incident if possible. Try to remember what the dog was doing just prior to the episode. Identifying a pattern of triggers will help your veterinarian arrive at a diagnosis. If there is a predicable stimulus, your veterinarian may attempt to instigate an episode in the hospital, so they can observe your dog personally. Identifying a pattern will also help prevent future occurrences.

Since narcoleptic symptoms also occur with other medical problems, conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and epilepsy must be ruled out. To arrive at an accurate diagnosis, your veterinarian will perform physical and neurological exams, which are usually normal. Laboratory tests, including a blood chemical profile, a complete blood count, a urinalysis, and an electrolyte panel, will help rule out any underlying diseases.

Can narcolepsy be treated?

There is no definitive cure for narcolepsy, but help is still available for affected dogs. Although you may not be able to stop the episodes, by identifying possible patterns that precipitate the incidents, you may be able to reduce the frequency and severity of events. For example, if your dog experiences an episode when visitors excite him, you can stay by his side and calm him down when the guests arrive. Or if extreme physical activity is the culprit, you can arrange to play fetch in a secure, safe area with level terrain. While the attacks are not life-threatening, if your dog hits his head on a rock or falls off a cliff or rock face while collapsing, a harmless narcoleptic event can quickly turn into a medical emergency.

"There is no definitive cure for narcolepsy, but help is still available for affected dogs."

If the narcoleptic episodes occur often or are disruptive, your veterinarian may prescribe oral medications to help control the frequency and duration of the attacks. When quality of life is affected (both your dog’s and yours), you may consider treating your dog with tricyclic antidepressant or hyperactivity medications that may reduce the dog’s excitement level. On the other hand, some dogs benefit from stimulant medications that combat excess sleepiness that accompanies narcolepsy. While these drugs will not cure narcolepsy, they may make the condition easier to live with.

Can my dog live with narcolepsy?

As a loving, concerned pet owner, you may find comfort in the fact that your dog is not in pain during a narcoleptic attack. You do not have to be worried that he will stop breathing or that he will choke if the attack occurs while he is eating. But there are safety measures you can take.

Owners of narcoleptic dogs must be vigilant and remain on the lookout for signs of an impending episode. Early identification of an event will allow you to intervene by providing comforting words and gentle physical contact to help decrease the length and severity of the attack.

"Early identification of an event will allow you to intervene by providing comforting words."

Being vigilant means scanning play areas for hazards and supervising any activity that may precipitate an episode. You should be on guard while your dog runs, swims, or plays near other dogs. If your dog collapses while walking down the street, move him to the side of the path, out of the way of oncoming vehicles. Protect him while he is collapsed and vulnerable to other dogs that may be playing in the area. A narcoleptic dog may startle a canine companion as he suddenly drops to the ground, eliciting an aggressive reaction from an otherwise gentle playmate. Keep him on a leash if he is walking on rough terrain or high traffic areas, so that you can retrieve him quickly. Avoid crowded dog parks. Lots of people or other dogs may over stimulate your narcoleptic dog, so visit the dog park during less crowded times.

Living with a narcoleptic dog does not mean you have to stop “living”. You just have to live cautiously. If you do, your narcoleptic dog can enjoy a long life. And, sometimes, over the course of this long life, narcoleptic dogs find that their problem resolves with age.

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