Dogs that suffer from Sleep Apnea struggle to breathe properly while they are asleep. The condition affects short-nosed breeds (brachycephalic dogs) almost exclusively. Sleep Apnea is not only very distressing, but also impacts a dog’s overall quality of life because of the chronic sleep deprivation it suffers.
For dogs with longer faces, breathing while asleep isn't a problem. They have very open airways that make breathing effortless. However, brachycephalic breeds have narrower nostrils and windpipes, excessive amounts of soft tissue inside their mouths, and are often overweight; all of these factors hamper the flow of air to their lungs. They generally cope with this when they are awake by making an extra effort to suck in sufficient air, but when they fall asleep and relax, their airways may collapse, stopping the flow of oxygen. This causes their body to panic and they jerk themselves awake, disturbing their sleep.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea include gasping or choking when asleep. Affected dogs often try to sleep sitting up or with their heads raised. They may also be grumpy and irritable because they are so tired.
Most affected dogs will snore. This is the sound of the air forcing its way past all the nasal and mouth tissue – but at least it is getting to the lungs! Snoring is often seen as cute or simply annoying by pet parents, but it can actually be a sign of significant issues. If ignored, it could progress to full-blown repetitive Sleep Apnea, where the dog becomes stuck in a cycle of falling asleep, suffocating, and jolting awake.
Treatment of Sleep Apnea generally involves surgery to the nose and throat to remove as much of the extra tissue as possible, so that the air can move freely. It is better done sooner rather than later in the dog's life as the longer the condition is present, the more challenging the operation.
It is also important to make sure your pet sticks to a healthy diet and gets regular exercise, to prevent excessive weight gain that could exacerbate any sleeping problems.
If you are concerned about your dog's breathing, whether while the pet is awake or asleep, and especially if the canine is a brachycephalic breed, talk to your vet as soon as possible. A good tip is to record videos of your dog during rest, exercise and sleep, as this will help your vet fully assess Fido's respiratory capacity.