Creature comforts

Sweet dreams and natural disasters

I was awakened by my phone spasmodically vibrating on my nightstand at 3:15 a.m. recently to alert me to the potential for a “severe thunderstorm” in the area. Thank you, Weather Channel App — if you hadn’t rudely awakened me, I might have been awakened by thunder. As it happens, there was no thunder. I know this because from 3:30 a.m. onward, I was unable to enter into a deep, restful sleep. Go figure.

For the record, I don’t mind being alerted at this hour for something that may cause the roof of my home to be ripped off or a tree to come crashing through my bedroom window, but otherwise, what the heck?

Much like the boy who cried wolf, my weather app seems to sound the alarm whenever a dark cloud forms in the sky, and most of these warnings are accompanied by a few raindrops, one or two claps of thunder and some mediocre wind gusts. Apparently, there’s no such thing as an ordinary thunderstorm, only severe thunderstorms. In the event of a true emergency, the emergency alert system will fail spectacularly, as it is likely we have all been conditioned to ignore it completely. Tragically, this phenomenon may be more injurious than no warnings at all — we hear so many “urgent” weather warnings that never actually pan out, we have become jaded, lackadaisical.

My lack of sleep has got me thinking about sleep in general. We veterinarians do get questions about pets and sleep, so I have gathered a few in list form (in no particular order), with comments.

Q: My dog whimpers and twitches in his sleep. Should I be worried?

A: No, you should not be worried. Cats and ferrets and other creatures do this, too. It’s likely they simply are dreaming. Though I cannot answer to what they are dreaming about, I fantasize their dreams involve chasing bunnies across a huge field. Bunnies probably dream about being chased across a huge field.

Worry not about pets twitching and making cute, little yipping or whimpering noises while sleeping, provided they can be rousted and appear fully aware when wakened. Be aware that they may be having an excellent dream, and by waking them, you are totally ruining it for them.

Observing your pet twitching or making irregular jerking motions while awake, however, may be a cause for concern, and so seeking advice from your veterinarian in this instance is a good idea.

Q: When I think my dog is having a nightmare, I wake her up. Is this OK?

A: So, if you’ve done this in the past, and she hasn’t hurt you, (which would be a perfectly natural reaction to being suddenly awakened from an intense dream) then, yeah, I guess it’s OK. It’s not dangerous to the animal’s health to wake them suddenly, but it may be dangerous to yours, so if you feel you must do this, engage very cautiously.

Q: My very elderly pet is sleeping so soundly these days, I worry he is dead. He doesn’t wake up when I come home, anymore, and sleeps through things like the refrigerator door opening or the sound of kibble being poured in his bowl. When I wake him up, he’s really out-of-it and often grumpy, but then he seems fine. Should I be worried?

A: Sleeping soundly is not a sign of poor health. Restlessness and the inability to sleep can most certainly signal discomfort and illness, however. The ability to sleep through noises is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if an individual (particularly if very aged) needs that restorative sleep, though, it may indicate hearing loss. While deafness is not the end of the world for a pet, it does present certain difficulties that can be dangerous, such as delayed avoidance of hazardous situations like the impending impact from a speeding car (or, indoors, the impending impact from toddler operating a toy car).

Sleeping very soundly all day but wakefulness or restlessness at night may be a sign of dementia or senility (termed “cognitive dysfunction”) in animals. If this behavior is accompanied by other changes in the pet’s alertness or a change in daily habits occurs, it is best to seek your veterinarian’s expertise.

Finally, if you were to wake ME up from a really sound sleep, I’d be a little disoriented and a lot grumpy, too. If you do this to me repeatedly to check if I’m dead, I will wish YOU were. So, maybe it would be kinder to look at your pet carefully to see if he’s breathing before you rudely roust him from a restful snooze. Just saying.

Q: My pet snores. Should I be worried about sleep apnea?

A: Snoring in animals is common, and ordinarily is not a cause for concern. That said, short-faced breeds such as old english bulldogs and Persian cats can have serious breathing issues in general. Their narrowed, partially obstructed airways can cause loud snoring and even sleep apnea (a discontinuation of breathing while sleeping.) No breathing, no oxygen. This makes the brain kind of upset, so it signals to the body: “WAKE UP AND BREATHE!” Sleep is interrupted many times through the night, never allowing for restful sleep.

Since we rarely allow animals to drive or operate heavy machinery, they generally don’t choose to become surgeons or air traffic controllers, and it is perfectly acceptable for animals to nap day and night, sleep apnea normally is of little medical consequence to the veterinary patient and often goes undiagnosed. The more important issue is obstructed breathing in general, asleep or awake. Severely affected patients can undergo specialized surgery, which can significantly improve their quality of life.

Hold on — I just got another severe weather alert — oh my god! It looks like another severe thunderstorm is headed our way, so I need to batten down the hatches and lie low for awhile. Right after I make myself a sandwich. Lying low kinda sounds nice, I sure could use a nap. After my last interrupted sleep, I’m tired enough to snooze through a natural disaster, but thanks to my handy phone, that will not happen. Turn it off, you say? Yeah, that’d be the time my house ends up in Oz for real! Sweet dreams, Dorothy.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sund­ay in the Lifestyle sect­ion. She can be reached at life@su ­