Chasing that wascally wabbit again?

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It is pretty darn cute when you hear your companion dog’s muffled bark and wonder what he is dreaming about. (Whether or not dogs dream is still up for debate.) The occasional muffled sleep barking, howling, slight twitching, and paddling are fairly common in most dogs. However, these symptoms are mild on the REM Behavior Disorder spectrum compared to other sleep actions that can occur such as violent shaking, rapid limb movements, and breathing disrupted by snorting, growling, chewing, or biting. In fact, some dogs may lift their heads and propel themselves across the floor with running movements. REM Behavior Disorder can be a serious condition.

Unlike seizures, you can wake your dog up from an REM Behavior Disorder episode. He may be slightly disoriented but will bounce back with neither lack of coordination nor confusion. Seizures usually cannot be interrupted and can sometimes involve biting the tongue, foaming at the mouth, vomiting, urinating, defecating or drooling along with the well-known characteristics of violent muscle activity, uncontrollable shaking and thrashing.

The causes of REM Behavior Disorder are unknown at this time but may occur in association with various degenerative, congenital neurological conditions. One client of mine mentioned that she noticed an uptick in the muffled barking, shaking and snorting with certain foods, combination of ingredients, and/or potential weather changes but could not pinpoint the exact cause(s) since the episodes were so infrequent and mild. 

For some dogs and humans, hypothyroidism may be a cause. For instance, Tater, a 3 year-old neutered male Bull Terrier, was originally diagnosed with rage syndrome and had been in several homes after developing behavioral issues. Tater’s problems were compounded by the fact that he is deaf. His current home is with an animal health technician, where everything was fine for a few months. Then, suddenly, Tater began to jump up without warning during sleep and roar like a lion. He attacked any person, animal or thing nearby, and then would become fully awake but unaware that anything had happened. Fortunately for Tater, proper testing eventually confirmed that he suffered from autoimmune thyroiditis, and he was prescribed a twice-daily thyroid supplement.

I agree with my colleague, Dr. M.A. Crist, Clinical Assistant Professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, that maintaining brain health is important for REM Behavior Disorder and all neurological conditions. “Omega 3 fatty acids and diets that are enriched with antioxidants are good for dogs with cognitive dysfunction and sleep issues,” said
Crist. “Therapeutic diets supplemented with antioxidants such as vitamin C, beta-carotene, flavonoids, carotenoids, and omega-3 fatty acids had dogs show improvement on the performance of cognitive tasks than dogs on a non-supplemented diet.”

Overall, I do recommend that dogs that have frequent episodes or severe symptoms of REM Behavior Disorder to have complete physical and neurological exams that include complete serum testing for conditions like hypothyroidism and epilepsy. Treatments may include acupuncture, potassium bromide, clonazepam, thyroxine or melatonin. However, I do not suggest starting any treatment protocol without consulting your veterinarian.

W. Jean Dodds, DVM
Hemopet / NutriScan
11561 Salinaz Avenue
Garden Grove, CA 92843


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