Vet Reviewed

By The Farmer's Dog | June 10, 2024

As your dog ages, you may notice some concerning changes in their behavior, such as sudden pacing and restlessness, especially at night. Whatever the reason, it’s important to understand what’s behind the behavior, and if it continues, you’ll need to take your dog to the vet for a clinical evaluation. There’s a difference between a single incident of pacing–a bout of anxiety caused by a thunderstorm, for example—and a new, regularly occurring behavior that may indicate an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed. 

Here’s what to know about this behavior and how you can manage it. 

Why is my senior dog restless and pacing at night?

Your once mellow senior dog now appears agitated and restless, and the change seemed to come out of nowhere. Some common causes for these nighttime perambulations include:

  • stress, such as a move to a new home or environmental factors 
  • cognitive dysfunction
  • pain, such as arthritis 
  • medical conditions, such as kidney disease or urinary tract infections    
  • vision loss                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Disrupted sleep is quite common in older dogs, but they still need our help and support if they seem disoriented or restless at night. If you’re observing your senior dog now getting up in the night and wandering around, don’t assume it’s “just” old age. This behavioral shift, if it becomes a regular habit, will require diagnosis from your vet.

Your dog may have some form of dementia, or cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) which can manifest in a dog feeling confused at night and getting up to wander, stare at a wall, or stand in the corner of a room; sleeping more during the day; displaying new phobias; and having “accidents” in the house, even after a late-night walk. There are many symptoms of CDS which require diagnosis and guidance from your vet. 

Cognitive decline in a senior dog can only be managed, rather than cured, and it requires plenty of patience and love. If your dog has CDS and seems especially confused or anxious at night, your vet will probably advise you to adhere to a very consistent daily schedule for rising, eating, walks and sleeping. All dogs love a consistent routine, but it’s critical for a dog with dementia. Also, make sure that your dog can easily find their water bowl at night—keep it in the same place, or put another one closer to their bed at night. And if you have a “doggie door” in your home, even if you have a fenced yard, you’ll need to limit your dog’s access at night so they can stay safe indoors. It might be a good idea to have your dog sleep in your bedroom at night, and close the door to limit any pacing and wandering, and to help them avoid injuring themselves. 

However, nighttime wandering isn’t always a sign of some kind of cognitive dysfunction. It could indicate other conditions, such as vision or hearing loss; kidney disease; arthritic pain that’s more acute when your dog lies down; or perhaps some other physical discomfort. Your vet can diagnose the issue and help you manage it. If you learn that the discomfort is caused by cancer, for instance, it’s possible that surgical removal of the tumors can resolve your dog’s night-time anxiety and pain, allowing them to sleep better through the night.

Sensory changes like vision loss can mean that your dog has a hard time differentiating day from night. Their sleep cycles can become disordered so they may be awake for a good portion of the night and want to sleep during the day. Be sure to speak to your vet if you suspect any vision or hearing loss. To help your dog navigate your home, try to keep all the “landmarks” like furniture and food bowls in the same place and generally keep their environment as stable as possible.

Sometimes the cause of pacing in an otherwise healthy senior dog is stress—a new home, a new baby or puppy in the house, or a major change in routine—or extreme noise sensitivity. Pay attention to whether anything has changed in your home environment. Are there any sounds in the house that may be startling them, such as a noisy new dishwasher or dryer running at night? Older dogs are more vulnerable to being frightened or unsettled. Make sure they’re sleeping in a quiet room, in a bed that’s comfortable, and see if this has any effect on nighttime pacing. You might want to consider buying an orthopedic dog bed, which is more supportive and will not aggravate joint pain as a thinner, worn-out bed otherwise might.

What to expect at the vet (and how to help your senior dog)

After you observe that your dog’s pacing has become a regular behavior, not just an isolated incident, it’s time to consult with your vet. Even if the cause is unclear, you can get help managing it, and if there’s something serious going on, early intervention is always best. Your vet will do a complete physical exam, and perhaps blood work, urine tests, and even an MRI. They’ll want to rule out medical conditions such as kidney or liver disease, or cancer.

If the cause of your dog’s pacing is a cognitive issue, such as dementia, the vet may want to prescribe a medication to help slow its progression. 

If the source of your dog’s nocturnal pacing is stress, the good news is that it can be managed and perhaps even resolved. Your vet may refer you to a trainer to help with your dog’s stress with behavioral modification. There are also canine anxiety medications that your vet can discuss with you. 

For anxious older dogs (who might also be coping with impaired hearing or vision) regular exercise is critical. 

If a dog is pacing a lot because of joint pain or discomfort, your vet may prescribe medications or supplements to provide relief. (Never give a pet any pain medication or supplement without consulting your vet.) Ask your vet whether any at-home treatments, such as massage, could alleviate your dog’s pain and perhaps reduce the pacing behavior, or whether another kind of modality might help, such as canine acupuncture.

Finally, make sure you’re providing sufficient stimulation in the daytime, so your dog is not restless and pacing out of boredom. Give them safe toys to play with, plenty of affection, regular walks, and games of fetch. If you’re at work each day, see if another family member can give them attention while you’re out, and hire a dog walker if needed. An active, healthy senior dog will greatly benefit from mental and physical stimulation, which could eliminate the pacing.

Worrying about a pet’s well-being is understandable, and regular pacing certainly warrants concern. Just remember that your vet is always there to advise you on how best to keep your dog thriving, happy, and comfortable, even in later stages of life.