Few things are cuter than a sleeping puppy. The more akimbo the limbs and theatrical the doggy dreams, the more aww-inducing the scene. Clinically speaking, doggy dreams are no big deal. A dog can paddle and whimper the night away, and owners need not worry.
In rare cases, however, adorable nocturnal theatrics can grow into a diagnosable condition called REM Behavior Disorder, or RBD.
Sleepers with RBD — human and canine alike — act out their dreams dramatically and sometimes violently. As the name suggests, RBD is characterized by disturbed REM sleep, the phase during which most dreaming occurs. The brain is highly active in REM sleep. In fact, EEG recordings of the REM brain and the awake brain should look similar. But, the REM body should lie relatively still, thanks to temporary paralysis of large muscles. In both people and pets with RBD, there’s a glitch in the brain system responsible for shutting down limb movement.
In the course of his 30-year career, Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University and pioneer in the field of behavioral pharmacology, has seen a steady stream of dogs with RBD. He’s also diagnosed a host of false alarms.
“A lot of people have reported that their dog appears to be particularly active while dreaming — whole body moving around, paddling violently,” Dodman said. “To me, that’s just a gradation of normal. When sleeping dogs get to REM behavior disorder, they’re up on their feet.”
Dogs with RBD typically begin exhibiting symptoms between 18 months and two-years-old. During episodes, it’s common for dogs to attack walls, doors and other inanimate objects.
“The attacks come almost like a breaching whale — out of the blue, boom,” said Dodman. “All of the sudden, they’re awake, and they’re moving around and don’t appear to be conscious. Then the behavior just subsides.”
Like sleep-walkers, dogs in RBD mode can be unpredictable. On occasion, owners incur injuries while trying to subdue madcap pups. But, according to Dodman, dogs’ nighttime antics have nothing to do with their daytime disposition. His RBD patients have nearly all been sweet, well-behaved dogs when they’re awake.
While RBD cases tend to follow a similar pattern, other neurological and behavior disorders do share similar symptoms. As a result, diagnosing RBD can get tricky. Noise-sensitive dogs, for example, may wake up startled by ultrasound-range noises that humans can’t hear. Subsequent bouts of erratic behavior, which typically end when the mettlesome noise abates, may resemble RBD when, in fact, it’s actually a noise phobia.
When an RBD diagnosis is made, Dodman typically prescribes a cocktail of anti-anxiety benzodiazepines (yes, Doggy Valium and Doggy Xanax), and possibly anticonvulsant drugs. Other veterinarians, Dodman said, may also throw antidepressants into the mix.
Overall, diagnosing RBD involves a lot of guesswork. To Dodman’s knowledge, there’s only been one major study on the subject, a 2004 paper published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. In this sole study, a research team lead by Karen Overall, a veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania, used a video-EEG (encephalogram) to procure a definitive diagnosis. Most RBD diagnoses rely on behavior analysis alone, particularly since RBD isn’t necessarily detectable through brain imaging tests.
Still, Dodman advises owners worried about their dog’s behavior to start the conversation with their regular vet, not a specialist. Just as in human healthcare, overtesting and overtreatment are growing issues in the veterinary sphere.