Why Your Dog Needs to Sleep — A Lot

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

why do dogs need so much sleep

Story at-a-glance -

  • The average dog spends about 50% of every 24 hours sleeping
  • High-quality sleep supports your dog’s brain development, learning capacity, memory, and immune system
  • How much sleep an individual dog needs depends on several factors, including age and size, breed and activity level, life changes, and overall health
  • Conditions that can affect a dog’s sleep include brachycephalic airway syndrome and REM sleep behavior disorder
  • To help your dog’s sleep quality, ensure she gets rigorous daily exercise and mental stimulation

Dogs sleep a lot — a fact that I'm sure hasn't escaped your notice if you have one or more canine family members! In fact, most domesticated dogs tend to sleep when they're not eating, playing, or waiting to see what their humans are going to do next.

According to experts, the average family dog in the U.S. spends about half his time napping, another 30% lounging around but awake, and the remaining 20% being active.1

This is a good thing, because the right amount of high-quality sleep is just as important for our dogs as it is for us, as it provides the opportunity to organize the day's input of data, which is very therapeutic. Sleep also supports your dog's brain development, learning capacity, memory, and immune system.

There are several factors that determine how much sleep an individual dog needs, including age, size, breed, activity level, life changes, and health status.

How Age and Size Influence a Dog's Need for Sleep

Just as with humans, young dogs and seniors need more sleep than healthy adolescent and adult dogs. Puppies spend their awake time exploring, playing, and growing, so they need as much as 18 to 20 hours of sleep each day to recharge their batteries.2

Older dogs typically need more sleep because like human seniors and the elderly, day-to-day living presents more challenges and they tire more easily. Big dogs tend to need more sleep, probably because large and giant breeds age more quickly and have shorter lifespans. Small breeds and working dogs may sleep less.

Breed and Activity Level Also Affect Sleep Patterns

Another factor in how much sleep your dog needs is the "job" she was bred to do. Dogs bred to work, for example, the Border Collie, tend to sleep less because they evolved to do jobs that require attention and dedication.

At the other end of the spectrum are dogs with no work history. Breeds that have never had a job to do other than to look adorable and occupy a human's lap are more likely to excel in "hours slept per day" contests.

Dog parents also factor into the equation. Active owners who keep their pets busy and on-the-move tend to have dogs who naturally sleep less than those belonging to more sedentary people or families who aren't home during the day.

Changes in Daily Routine Can Affect the Need for Sleep

Dogs are creatures of habit and do best with a daily routine they can depend on. When something in your dog's day-to-day life, environment or "social group" dynamic changes, it can have an effect.

This might include the addition of a new family member (two- or four-legged), or the loss of one. It definitely includes a move to a new home, taking a trip or being boarded, and even a change in a family member's work or school schedule (like being home during a pandemic).

One of the signs your dog is dealing with change-related stress is a temporary need to sleep more than usual to rebalance his equilibrium and regain his normal energy level.

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An Injured or Sick Dog Needs More Sleep

Generally speaking, dogs who are ill, injured, or have certain chronic conditions will sleep more than average. Conditions that can affect your dog's sleep include:

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome — Older dogs, like older people, sometimes have more trouble getting to sleep than their younger counterparts. They can also develop the canine version of "sundowning," a term that describes Alzheimer's patients who become confused and restless as night falls. They pace and can't seem to settle down.

It's also important to note that military and police dogs, and any dog that has experienced significant trauma can suffer from PTSD, which can cause difficulty sleeping. If your dog is older and is becoming restless at night, or if you suspect she may be dealing with post-traumatic stress, make an appointment with your veterinarian for an evaluation.

Brachycephalic airway syndrome — If you have a brachycephalic (flat-faced) breed such as a Pug or Bulldog, he probably has some degree of brachycephalic airway syndrome, which can include narrow nasal openings, a thin windpipe, a long soft palate, and extra tissue that can block the larynx. Dogs with this syndrome typically have difficulty breathing, which can take the form of sleep apnea.

When a human with sleep apnea stops breathing, he or she is prevented from entering deep dream sleep. However, dogs who stop breathing while asleep continue dreaming, and the apnea can last for a much longer period of time. As a result, dogs with the condition are harder to wake up than humans with apnea, and they also tend to be sleepier during the day.

If you have a brachy who snores loudly while asleep, there's a high likelihood he's experiencing doggy apnea. Make an appointment with your veterinarian to have him examined, diagnosed, and treated, if necessary. Difficulty breathing and poor sleep quality can compromise your dog's health and quality of life.

Narcolepsy — Just like humans, dogs can suffer from narcolepsy, which is a neurological disorder that affects the brain's ability to control sleep-wake cycles. Dogs with the condition fall asleep very suddenly and at weird times, such as when they're eating or playing.

Fortunately, this condition in dogs is rare. In addition, some dogs with narcolepsy experience a lessening of symptoms as they age, and treatment is usually not recommended unless they're having multiple episodes each day.

REM sleep behavior disorder — According to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus at Tufts University:

"When mammals sleep, they have two phases. In one, the body is somewhat active, but the mind is idle. In the other, it's reversed. Normally, muscles are paralyzed during dream sleep. When that doesn't happen, individuals may act out their dreams."3

Dogs with this disorder often make a lot of noise and are active during sleep — they may howl, bark, growl, chew, bite, or display violent movement of the limbs. Obviously, if your dog is exhibiting any of these behaviors while asleep, you should have her seen by your veterinarian.

As you can see, it's important to observe your pet's normal sleep patterns so that you can act quickly if she's suddenly sleeping much more (or less) than normal. If you notice something off about your dog's need for sleep, I recommend checking in with your veterinarian.

Tips to Help Your Dog Sleep

Ensuring your dog gets at least 8 hours of deep, restful sleep in a dark, quiet room, followed by ample time outside, in direct sunlight, is critical for normal circadian rhythms and overall well-being.

There aren't many studies on sleep deprivation in dogs, but it's assumed they experience many of the same symptoms humans do, such as irritability, disorientation, and an inability to focus or perform normal tasks. If you notice these or similar changes in your dog, I recommend making an appointment with your veterinarian. If your dog isn't sleeping well:

  1. Make sure he's getting plenty of rigorous exercise. In fact, let him tell you when he's had enough. For restless dogs, I recommend an hour a day, with at least one exhausting sprint. Put all of your dog's joints through their entire range of motion on a daily basis.
  2. Provide mental stimulation with puzzles, treat-release toys, hikes, swims and other outdoor activities that appeal to her natural instincts.
  3. Consider enrolling your dog in an obedience class or an activity that helps him focus, such as nose work.
  4. Feed a nutritionally optimal, species-specific diet to avoid food intolerances, amino acid deficiencies and allergies common in dogs fed low-quality commercial pet food. I think we tend to underestimate how much food sensitivities can contribute to restless behavior.
  5. Let your dog sleep in your bedroom; sleeping near her human can help ease any anxiety that may be contributing to her nighttime restlessness. Turn off the TV and all lights to create a dark, quiet and light-free sleeping sanctuary. This also supports a healthy circadian rhythm for both of you and allows for more restful, deep sleep (which is when the body heals and restores itself).
  6. Offer a grounding mat, which can help balance his circadian rhythm, and unplug all electronics and wireless routers where he sleeps to give him a break from the constant EMFs bombarding his body.
  7. Talk to your integrative veterinarian about natural calming supplements for nighttime use, such as l-theanine, melatonin, rhodiola, ashwagandha, and chamomile.

+ Sources and References