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Don’t Let Sleeping Dogs Lie on Backs

QUESTION:

My question is about my dog Hermes and sleep apnoea for dogs. Yes, don’t laugh, it is a serious question. Neutered and now 10-plus years old, Hermes is a Bichon-Maltese cross. Fully vaccinated, healthy and much loved. He lives indoors most of the day.

He likes sleeping on his back, as he is doing now, hence the revelation that he snores! Snoring irregularity is a sign of sleep apnoea, isn’t it? And that leads on to heart problems and early death. Can we get one of those CPAP machines for him?

ANSWER:

Sleep apnoea is a disorder in which breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep. It is common in humans and a serious risk to health.

Obstructive sleep apnoea is most common, comprising 90 to 96 per cent of apnoeas diagnosed in overnight sleep studies. Repetitive collapse of the upper airway during sleep blocks attempts to breathe. It is usually worse if the person sleeps on their back.

The other type of sleep apnoea, central sleep apnoea, is due to decreased output (breathing instructions) from the control centres in the brain.

The word apnoea literally means without breath. Snoring is symptomatic of sleep apnoea but not definitive. Diagnosis is usually by a sleep physician based on information such as the number and length of apnoea episodes during sleep.

Prevalence in humans is estimated at 24 per cent in males and 9 per cent in females of middle age. However no figures are available for dogs.

On this basis it is assumed that any animal that sleeps can have episodes of apnoea during sleep. Some dogs, particularly those with flattened snouts such as bulldogs, pugs and boxers, are known for having difficulty breathing when awake, so it is conceivable that even a small relaxation in their airways could cause apnoeas.

Standard treatment in humans is through the use of breathing aids such as the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure or CPAP machine.

Other treatments include lifestyle changes such as weight loss, reducing alcohol intake and stopping smoking.

The CPAP operates at quite high air pressures and requires individual fitting and adjustment of the facial mask. About 70 per cent of obstructive sleep apnoea sufferers will tolerate extended use of a CPAP machine.

It is unlikely that a dog would do so even if a specially modified system was available, which it isn’t.

The Australian Veterinary Association confirms many dogs snore and many dogs have soft palate entrapment, which leads to erratic breathing, although this doesn’t equate to sleep apnoea as it exists in people. Sometimes vets correct the anatomical problem with surgery. There are a few sporadic cases of apnoea during sleep in individual dogs but these appear to have been primarily neurological in origin, more like central sleep apnoea in humans.

Perhaps the best available treatment is to prevent him from sleeping on his back as much as possible.

– Answer by a clinical psychologist on the panel who happens to suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea.

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