Restlessness and Agitation in Dogs

Published on
Last updated on
3 min read

Key takeaways

While sometimes confused with normal behaviors in high-energy, excitable dogs, restlessness or agitation is an abnormal symptom that can be associated with serious medical conditions and is often secondary to pain or discomfort.

  • Dogs that are restless or agitated may be suffering from a wide variety of conditions, including injury, toxin ingestion, cognitive dysfunction, pain, or gastrointestinal disease
  • Restlessness or agitation may be seen alongside other symptoms such as excessive panting, circling, unproductive retching, or unsteady gait
  • Diagnosis involves determining the underlying cause, and requires a full work up including bloodwork, urinalysis, fecal examination, and diagnostic imaging
  • Treatment depends on the condition and may include intensive care, medications, behavioral therapy, or surgery
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A closer look: Restlessness and Agitation in Dogs

Restlessness and agitation in dogs are behaviors that are continual and concerning, which is different from normal high-energy behaviors in dogs. Behavior that warrants concern includes abnormal or out of the ordinary pacing and hyperactivity or hypervigilance that cannot be controlled. Examples include dogs that try to lay down to rest but get back up quickly, dogs that appear tired and wanting to sleep but will not lay down, and/or dogs that are highly distracted and not able to relax.

The presence of restlessness and agitation is common as it is associated with several underlying conditions. In dogs it may be associated with serious, life-threatening medical conditions. Prompt veterinary care is required, and emergency care is warranted when other symptoms such as unproductive vomiting/retching, difficulty breathing, or difficulty walking are also present.

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Possible causes

Restlessness and agitation are very common symptoms in a wide variety of conditions in dogs.

Risk factors

Restlessness and agitation varies widely in dogs. It can be:

  • Acute or chronic
  • Intermittent or continuous
  • Observed with other symptoms or alone
  • Static or progressive (if progressive, slow or fast)
  • Displayed with an obvious trigger such as injury

Testing and diagnosis

Since restlessness and agitation are symptoms of an underlying disease or condition, extensive diagnostics may be required. This starts with a full history and thorough physical examination, followed by an array of diagnostic tests such as:

  • Bloodwork
  • Urinalysis
  • Fecal testing
  • Diagnostic imaging such as X-Ray or Ultrasound

Referral to a specialist may be required in some cases.

Treatment depends entirely on the condition that is associated with the restlessness or agitation, and as such will vary widely. These treatments may include behavioral modification, pain control, medications, surgery, intensive nursing care, or even immediate life-saving interventions (oxygen therapy, thoracocentesis/ abdominocentesis, CPR) .

Similar symptoms

Restlessness and agitation are often mistaken for normal behaviors such as high energy or attention seeking. It is therefore important to differentiate normal temporary behaviors from abnormal, continual behaviors. The presence of additional symptoms can also help differentiate between a normal behavior, and one of concern.

Associated symptoms

Restlessness and agitation can be observed with many other symptoms, depending on the underlying cause.


No Author - Writing for Wag!
Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP - Writing for VCA Animal Hospitals
Elizabeth Riley, Veterinary Student Class of 2023 Reviewed by the Veterinary Team at VIN - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Christine Calder, DVM, DACVB - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Jo Myers, DVM - Writing for Pawp
Dr. Debra Primovic - DVM - Writing for PetPlace

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