This article was updated on May 15th, 2023
I’ve lost track of the amount of times an owner has asked me about sleeping pills for their dog. This can be because they have a boisterous puppy who won’t settle, an elderly dog who paces at night or a nervous pet who they wish to sedate before travelling.
In truth, dogs should not and do not take sleeping pills in the same way a human would. It would not be ethical to sedate them every night or to give them medicine that forces them to sleep against their will regularly. It could also have serious health implications. However, there are lots of other options available, so let’s explore these further.
When to use sleeping pills for dogs
There are a number of occasions when owners will ask about the potential for dispensing sleeping pills, This can include:
• Anxious dogs who struggle to settle, particularly during fireworks or storms. Also, dogs who are about to travel or who get very anxious before a vet visit or grooming trip
• Dogs in chronic pain who have trouble sleeping for the whole night
• Older dogs with dementia who are restless and pace in the evening time
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• Young dogs who have lots of energy and who are not crate training as expected
For most of the above cases, sleeping pills are not the solution.
An exception to this would be when we prescribe sedatives for dogs with severe fireworks or storm phobia, so that the dog does not panic or become destructive.
Similarly, we may issue some medicine as a one off before a very stressful event, like a long car journey. These calming medications are only used when needed, rather than on an ongoing basis.
When NOT to use sleeping pills for dogs
Sleeping pills should not be seen as the solution to a dog who is struggling to sleep at night. In these cases, we need to get to the root cause and address this.
A dog in pain will do better if prescribed pain relief and anti inflammatories, while boisterous young pets should sleep better if given enough exercise, training and mental stimulation throughout the day.
We also need to ensure our dogs have a set routine, a bed time and a comfy sleeping spot in an area of the home where they feel safe and that is darkened and quiet.
Even in the case of dogs with phobias, the long-term solution is not medicine. Rather, we want to work on desensitization; making them less reactive to their fear, and helping them to overcome it.
What are the best sleeping pills for dogs?
Let’s take a look at some of the options on the market.
• Clomipramine (clomicalm). Many owners have heard of this drug as it is commonly used as part of the management of separation anxiety. It is actually an antidepressant and of its side effects include drowsiness. Dogs frequently experience other side effects such as stomach upsets, an irregular heartbeat and changes in blood pressure.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
When used, it will be prescribed by a vet, usually at the recommendation of a canine behaviorist. It should be given alongside a training program and can help in the treatment of certain anxieties and phobias.
Importantly, if an owner wants to stop the medicine, this needs to be done so gradually under the supervision of a vet, to avoid side effects.
• Melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone supplement that has been used to treat both behavioral and sleep disorders in our canine companions. It also has a range of other potential therapeutic effects and may one day be used in the treatment of neurological conditions, GI disorders and cancers too.
Many vets dispense it to older dogs with canine dementia who are not sleeping well. Despite its potential, studies on the effect it has on dogs with dementia have not been promising, with results not showing any real benefit.
Melatonin is now being added to pet foods and supplements, but there are concerns here with regards giving the appropriate dose and potential unknown side effects.
• Diphenhydramine. As many of us know, there are anti-histamines that make us drowsy, and others that do not. In dogs, Benadryl can cause mild drowsiness, so some vets will prescribe it for those who are anxious when being transported or similar occasions. In my experience, the effects are minimal and many owners see no real difference.
• Diazepam. Also known as Valium, this tranquilizer is used in veterinary medicine to help treat spasms as well as seizures. It is also sometimes used as part of an anesthetic protocol. Side effects can include drowsiness, aggression and an altered heart rate.
It does have potential for being used as part of a behavioral program, and may make some dogs more amenable to being trained and less anxious. This is a prescription only medication.
• ACP. Acepromazine is a mild tranquilizer that vets may prescribe to an anxious dog before a vet visit or a groom. It works well in those with mild to moderate anxiety, though many dogs ‘wake up’ quickly once stressed.
• Sileo (Dexmedetomidine oral paste). Sileo is a sedative paste that is put on the gums of dogs when at home and very anxious or distressed. It helps to sedate them at times of high anxiety, such as a reaction to fireworks. As well as causing sedation, we may also see a slower heart rate and breathing. Some dogs will also experience an upset stomach.
Why good sleep is important for the health of dogs
While sleeping, the body restores itself, cells repair, hormones are released and toxic waste is removed. Good sleep is essential for good health and a dog who is not sleeping enough is likely to develop a weakened immune system and chronic medical issues.
Dogs are also going to be dorwsier and less energetic during the day, which can make things like training sessions more difficult.
Some dogs who are not getting enough sleep may even become grumpy or aggressive. This is especially true if they’re getting older and/or have underlying medical issues.
What are the benefits of using sleeping pills safely for dogs?
When prescribed by a vet and used correctly, sleeping pills like tranquilizers and calming tablets can be very useful. They are a great addition to many training programs when we have reactive dogs who are pumped full of adrenaline and need a little ‘encouragement’ to calm down and listen.
In the vet clinic, sedatives are invaluable for us being able to safely examine and treat dogs who are very anxious or aggressive. They are used on a daily basis and enable us to get out job done effectively and safely, without distressing the patient.
How long does it take for sleeping pills to work in dogs?
The duration and time to effect of a medicine depend on the properties of that specific medicine. For most, effects are relatively quick, happening within the first two hours.
Anti-histamines will usually have kicked in within half an hour; similar to ACP. Diazepam and Melatonin can take closer to an hour or two before we see the full effect.
With anxiolytics like Clomipramine, effects will actually take a few days to become apparent, as the drug gradually builds up in the dog’s system.
Possible side effects of sleeping pills
As with any drug, side effects are not uncommon when it comes to canine sleeping pills. The most obvious and expected side effect we see is drowsiness and less reactivity to external stimuli like loud noises. However, these drugs can also work to depress the central nervous system, causing slower breathing, a reduced heart rate, low blood pressure and a slightly lowered body temperature.
For older dogs or those with underlying medical issues, sleeping pills can be dangerous. They also have the potential to interact with other drugs. For these reasons, it is important to only give your dog a sleeping pill that was prescribed for them.
Some sleeping pills can cause additional side effects such as a stomach upset or even behavioral changes like aggression. Always discuss the potential side effects with your vet, before starting the medicine.
When to visit the vet for advice
If you think your dog might benefit from sleeping tablets, book an appointment with your vet to discuss the options available. While your vet won’t issue you with medicine to give your dog every night to help them sleep, they may prescribe calming or sedative medicine in specific situations.
Frequently Asked Questions
• How can I get my dog to sleep at night?
If your dog is not sleeping well at night, a nightly sedative is not the answer. Rather, we should organize a vet check to assess for an underlying health or behavioral disorder, which can then be addressed.
Take a closer look at your dog’s routine and sleeping set up. Are they getting enough mental and physical stimulation during the day? Are we putting them to bed too early? Do we expect them to sleep when the TV is blaring and the kids are still up and playing loudly?
• Can I give my dog human sleeping pills?
No, we should never give our dogs human medicine. While some of the treatments we use in our dogs are also used by humans (such as Diazepam), your dog will need a different dose to you and should only ever take medicine that was specially supplied for them by their vet.
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