Causes of Canine Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy in dogs is thought to have a genetic component. The signs noticed by most owners are the sudden loss of muscle tone and control, called cataplexy. Most affected dogs have no medically detectable central nervous system abnormalities, although rarely some sort of underlying brain disease is found. An inherited form of the disease has been identified in a family of Doberman Pinschers. The gene thought to be responsible for their hereditary disorder involves an abnormality in the receptor for a particular chemical neurotransmitter, hypocretin, that is involved in regulating normal sleep cycles. Most narcoleptic dogs produce normal levels of hypocretin in their brains, but they lack the appropriate receptors for hypocretin, which affects their ability to control various aspects of deep sleep. It has been reported that dogs, people and mice with narcolepsy share a defect in the receptors for this chemical neurotransmitter. Further research is underway to determine the precise cause of narcolepsy in the species that it affects.
Narcolepsy cannot realistically be prevented at this time. However, it rarely requires treatment, unless severe episodes interfere with a dog’s safety or overall quality of life.
Diagnosis of narcolepsy is best done at a veterinary teaching hospital or other specialized medical facility. One current treatment protocol involves administering antidepressants. Modafinil is a drug being used in dogs to promote wakefulness. Another is Ritalin, also called methylphenidate, and other treatment options are being pursued. Any treatment should be prescribed and closely supervised by the attending veterinarian. The prognosis for dogs with narcolepsy is fairly good, with consistent management of stressful or otherwise stimulating events.