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For dogs with Alzheimer's confusion may reign as light falls


A slice of Oregon forest, a fragrant eight-foot noble pine, reigns over our living room in Southern California. I drape the boughs with a final string of lights—silly plastic teddy bears I’ve had for years—and step down from the ladder. It’s growing late on a Sunday afternoon. Our favorite Frank Sinatra carols are playing, scalloped potatoes are bubbling in the oven and the sun is going down over the Pacific Ocean. I’ve been looking forward to this: relaxing in front of the fire, the room lit only by the tree. I should have known better.

Recently, as the days shorten and the curtain of light falls earlier—at four o’clock, now three—Fromer, our 15-year-old Yorkie, goes bonkers! It’s as if the dark sets him off. Now he’s on the floor between my husband and myself, and his ballistic barking drowns out even the roar of the surf.

Five months ago he was diagnosed with terminal renal failure, and given two weeks to live. The vet said I should consider myself his hospice worker. (I don’t know about you, but a hospice worker to a dog was a new one for me.) I gave him subcutaneous fluids, fine-tuned his medications and administered pot roast aromatherapy. By October, my little hospice patient was skipping through the house. The vet cautioned me that Fromer still had renal disease; he was just “temporarily stabilized.”

So, our days were OK; the evenings were something else.

Like a young child squalling over a bogeyman only he can see, at night Fromer got spooked. On this December evening, I forego the pleasure of enjoying the room lit only by the Christmas tree, and switch on every light inside and out. He seems to calm down, but he is licking his paws so feverishly they will be raw if he keeps it up. His tommy- gun barking starts again. Night has turned him into Fromster-the-terrorist-terrier, an impossible-to-please elderly relative.

I poke at the embers to keep the fire from dying out, while Fromer totters off, whimpering in and out the dog door—flap! flap! out, flap! flap! in—the rest of the evening. Until we pack it in and head upstairs. Then he peters out.

When I originally mentioned these symptoms to Stephen Ettinger, our vet, I didn’t get much satisfaction. Dr. Ettinger is an internist, cardiologist and co-author of The Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, said, “Maybe it’s neurological, or he’s cold, or it might be his eyesight.” He reminded me that Fromer’s eyes were failing, making it harder for him to see when the light goes. He didn’t offer any therapeutic help to deal with the situation.

By accident, I stumbled on a Newsweek article (Jan. 31, 2000), “Coping with Darkness,” revolutionary new approaches in providing care to people with Alzheimer’s. The article described how Alzheimer’s patients can become increasingly agitated at the end of the day, and how light is especially important to them in the late afternoon and early evening. Although Fromer hadn’t been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—dogs also suffer from this disease—the early nights of winter had brought on a behavior in my dog that exactly matched the symptoms of some Alzheimer’s patients.

Now I had a name for what I’d been observing: sundowning. And a definition: According to Harvard Medical School, Department of Psychiatry, sundowning is a syndrome in Alzheimer’s patients of recurring confusion and increased agitation in the late afternoon or early evening. A sundowner is a patient who sundowns.

One antidote to sundowning is increasing the light to eliminate frightening shadows. Except increased illumination only helps patients with intact vision. That explains why flooding rooms with light did not soothe my geriatric friend.

This is now our second Christmas without Fromer. As I untangle those silly teddy bear lights, I remember those awful winter nights, and wonder what I might have done differently.

A half-dozen vets I have spoken with since then say they have never come across sundowning in veterinary literature. They offer replies similar to Allen M. Schoen’s, D.V.M., author of Kindred Spirits, “I am not familiar with the syndrome.”



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Submitted by Sharon Anderson | November 5 2013 |

One of our elderly English setters experienced this in her last months. I recognized the symptoms because my mother had dementia before her death. Our JoJo would pace around the kitchen table pretty much all night long; we could hear her claws on the tile. Leaving the kitchen light on would help. She also would walk into corners and not know how to get out. Vets should be aware of these symptoms. Bless her little soul.

Submitted by Shirley Hudleson | November 21 2013 |

One of our Cardigan Corgi's had (what I now know as) Sundowner's Disease. She was blind & deaf, in the evening she would walk around and around for hours until she was tired enough to settle down and fall asleep. It was at this point we knew we had to let her go. It was one of the saddest days of my life. We were with her at the end, telling her what a sweet girl she was and that we would see her again one day.

Submitted by Bonnie Jamison | December 20 2013 |

My 10 year old German Shepherd, Skye began showing signs of sundowners syndrome about a year ago. She would try to hide under small chairs, pace, stand at the end of dark hallways, pant and much more. As dusk became darkness, she would calm. It was sad and scary as I watched her suffer.

I was fortunate to find a natural product that has helped her and hopefully it will continue to do so.

I am so happy to begin seeing articles like this one. Our vets need to become more aware of sundowners in dogs.

Thanks to The Bark for posting this

Submitted by DNeal | December 26 2013 |

Please share what natural product seems to help Skye. My elderly Bichon has gone deaf and partially blind, and is experiencing many of the symptoms mentioned here. Restless pacing at night, a continual warbling kind of bark and constantly searching for me whenever I leave the house (or the room), especially after dark. Her bed is right beside ours, but as soon as I turn out the light she begins crying softly and gets up to pace. Not even holding her consoles her. It's driving my husband nuts. She appears otherwise healthy, according to my holistic vet.

Submitted by Patti | December 26 2013 |

Thank you for sharing your story and all you've learned. I witnessed the same confusion in my beloved 16 1/2 year old Lhasa-Poo, Chelsea, as she slipped further and further into her doggie dementia. Until now, I never realized that it was a diagnosable condition. Our poor Vet hadn't a clue as to what was causing it. Next time around I'll be better prepared.

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