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Narcolepsy and Sleep Disorders

Sleep is a magical mysterious thing that we simply can’t do without. The mechanism by which one falls asleep is still a little bit of a puzzle, as is the exact mechanism of waking up. There has been a lot of research into sleep disorders in people over the last few years with wonderful work being done to help those who suffer. Ranging from those that can’t get to sleep (insomniacs), don’t breathe properly while they sleep (sleep apnoeics) and children with hyperactivity attention deficit disorders (ADHD). But what about our pets?

Sleep Disorders: What’s going on in the brain?

With all the new information that’s being gathered, we are slowly starting to get some ideas as to how animals fall asleep and wake-up. In general terms, the processes of going to sleep, staying asleep, waking-up and staying awake are controlled by chemical messengers (a.k.a. neurotransmitters) in the brain. You’ve probably heard of a few of them: Dopamine, Melatonin, Histamine, Noradrenaline…. Depending on when and where they are released in they brain, they bring about a chain-reaction of events that either allows the animal to go to sleep or stay awake. Furthermore, these messengers are released in response to the time of day and activity around us. Sleep disorders can occur when one of these neurotransmitters is not being produced in the correct quantity, the correct time or if the little receptors that they bind to are not functioning correctly. There are other influences on the brain, including what’s going on in the environment and the rest of the animal’s body, especially relevant are the influences of hormones.

What are some of the sleep disorders affecting animals?

  • Narcolepsy-Cataplexy: If you’ve ever seen a video of an animal affected by this disorder, you may be forgiven for thinking it looks pretty funny. However, it’s a real struggle for some that are severely affected. There is an imbalance of sleep-associated neurotransmitters in the brain that results in a pet suddenly collapsing and falling into a very deep sleep. This usually occurs when they get very excited e.g. at mealtimes or when playing. Generally, it doesn’t have any serious implications, however if your pet is near a water bowl when they suddenly collapse there is a possibility of drowning. Usually medication is not required, but if the condition worsens, it may become necessary.
  • Cognitive Dysfunction: Older pets may start showing some decline in mental function including an apparent loss of toilet-training, aimless wandering, loss of recognition of familiar people/other pets, change of character e.g. becoming grumpy or easily frightened. One of the most common effects is a change in sleep patterns with restless pacing being most characteristic of this group. In many ways, this condition shares many characteristics with those that we see in human Alzheimers patients. Medications and a special diet can assist in alleviating some of the signs and improving their quality of life.
  • Hyperthyroidism: This is a relatively common condition in older cats. They produce too much thyroid hormone which has widespread effects all over the body including hyper-vigilance, nervousness and anxiety. Medical treatment includes a variety of options and is worth discussing with your vet once the condition is diagnosed.
  • Hypothyroidism: This is a relatively common condition in older dogs. Affected animals produce too little thyroid hormone and they spend a lot of time being sleepy and lethargic. Once diagnosed, this condition can usually be relatively well managed with medication and the pet’s behaviour and activity improves.

So, if your animal buddy is making you concerned about its change in sleep patterns, don’t just stay awake at night worrying about it, speak to your vet.

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