Dogs have a wide repertoire of vocalizations, and over time, you’ve probably come to know what’s typical for your dog. But if you have a senior dog who is suddenly barking more often at night, don’t assume this change is just part of “getting old.” Barking can be a sign of distress and even pain. If the barking continues for more than a few nights, and you can’t discern an obvious trigger, it’s time for a visit to your vet. They can either rule out underlying medical conditions or determine how to manage and treat them.
Understand that your dog’s needs change as they get older, and behaviors change, too. A little patience and compassion will go a long way.
Here’s what to know about nocturnal barking, and how to help your senior dog (and and everyone else in your home) have a more restful night.
What are some common causes of barking at night?
Dogs bark! It’s a normal, healthy behavior. But if your aging dog is starting to bark regularly at night, it could be a sign of something that warrants investigation. Some of the causes of this behavior include:
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Anxiety, stress, or fear
- Poor night vision or impaired hearing
No matter their age, if your dog is barking at night they may be responding to nocturnal noises inside or outside your home. Your senior dog might be more sensitive and react differently to loud and unpredictable sounds at night, which can startle and frighten them.
Check your home for any potentially triggering sounds—such as a dishwasher running, an elevator just outside your apartment, steam pipes heating up in wintertime, or wildlife rustling around outside. If the noise is something you can control (or even better, eliminate), try to do so, or move the dog’s bed to a quieter part of the house. You can chat with a vet or trainer about behavior modification tips, too.
As they age, some dogs may develop cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). One study showed that 32% of dogs over the age of 11 were afflicted. Signs of CDS include:
- Spatial confusion and disorientation, especially at night
- Barking at night for no obvious reason
- Getting stuck in corners or in front of furniture, unsure where to go
- Pacing aimlessly during the day or at night
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Repetitive behaviors, such as licking
- Increased panting, even while resting
- Separation anxiety
- Eliminating indoors, even after coming home from a walk
In dogs, as in people with cognitive decline, many of these signs can show up or worsen in the evening, which is why the condition is often called sundowner syndrome. If you see any of these signs on a regular basis, talk to your vet. Dogs with cognition issues may be afraid of their surroundings, and completely unaware that they’re barking for prolonged periods.
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for cognitive dysfunction syndrome but your vet can offer guidance on the best ways to slow its progression or help your dog enjoy a better quality of life. Your vet may recommend enrichment, dietary changes, supplements, or medication.
Anxiety, stress, or fear
Older dogs may be experiencing anxiety, stress, or fear that seems more acute at night, and manifest as barking. You may not be able to figure out why your senior dog is feeling stressed, or the source of their fear, but you can try to alleviate it. Bring them onto your bed for a reassuring cuddle; it’s possible they’ll feel more secure at night being by your side. Otherwise, you could consider bringing their bed into your room at night, or putting a small nightlight near their sleeping area to help them feel calmer about their surroundings. Ask your vet about any calming supplements you could give your dog at night to reduce anxiety (and barking). If you can determine a source for your dog’s stress, you can also work with a trainer on some counterconditioning techniques to reduce fear of a specific object or situation.
Poor night vision or impaired hearing
A medical condition known as progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) can cause poor night vision, and barking may be caused by frustration or fear at being unable to see in low light conditions. This condition isn’t painful, and progression depends on the breed, but it often leads to blindness over time. Because the condition tends to progress slowly, most dogs adapt surprisingly well. Your vet can discuss how to help make your dog feel safer and more comfortable as their vision declines, so the barking at night may cease. Some things you can do to help a vision-impaired dog include:
- Keeping furniture in the same arrangement, for a more predictable home environment
- Using safety gates to block access to stairs
- Having your dog sleep in your bedroom, with the door closed
Breeds that tend to be more susceptible to PRA include poodles, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and cocker spaniels.
Similarly, hearing loss can make older dogs feel unsettled at night. Dogs with impaired hearing, or deaf dogs, may bark out of frustration or uneasiness with their surroundings. In fact, barking at night is one of the subtle early signs of hearing loss connected to aging, along with being easily startled when touched, and not responding to sounds as they once did (such as doorbells)—but seeming to bark with no obvious triggers. Hearing loss can also cause disrupted sleep in dogs and is worth addressing with your vet.
As dogs get older, they may start to experience the aches and pains of aging, but for some, the pain is more intense and is a common reason for nocturnal barking. Sometimes an old injury flares up, or arthritis causes them pain, especially at night. Unable to settle or fall asleep, dogs can bark as a cry for help, to get your attention. Speak to your vet about any new signs of pain, and about managing conditions like arthritis. They may recommend anti-inflammatory medications to ease the pain, or supplements such as glucosamine or chondroitin.
You can make some other lifestyle changes that might prove helpful, such as shorter but more frequent walks to alleviate stiffness, swimming (in water that isn’t too cold, which could cause more pain), and buying an orthopedic bed that will be more comfortable and supportive. Also, ask the vet about giving your dog an evening massage, not just to ease pain, but also to help calm them and perhaps reduce the barking at night.
With your vet’s help, you can help your dog have a more silent night, which will contribute to your own restful sleep as well.