Do Pets Dream?

Do Pets Dream?

Do pets dream?  If you are a dog or cat owner, chances are you have wondered if your pets dream.

If you’ve watched your pet sleep, you’ve seen him quiver, twitch, run in place, swat at phantoms, or even growl or snap during nightmares.  So you probably already guessed it; the answer is yes. Like us, our companion animals dream while sleeping.     

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But how do we know this?

There are two main types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and slow-wave sleep (SWS). Both slow-wave sleep and REM sleep are very similar in pets and humans. During this time, the brain processes information learned during the day.

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The REM or rapid eye movement stage of sleep refers to the fast eye movements that take place underneath the eyelids during this period.  Despite appearing more active, animals (and humans) experience the deepest and most relaxing sleep during this stage. It is when dreaming takes place.

Dogs and Dreaming

There is significant evidence to suggest that dogs dream in much the same way humans do.  Much of this evidence comes from research conducted by Matt Wilson, a neuroscientist at MIT who studies memory and learning.

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Structurally, human and dog brains are very similar.  Wilson also noted several similarities in sleep behaviors between dogs and humans. For example, both dogs and humans display comparable rapid eye movement, which is associated with dreaming.  Dogs also show a similar increased level of brain activity during deep sleep.

Additionally, Wilson points to a portion of the brain, known as the Pons Varolii, present in both humans and dogs.  The pons relays information and coordination between the two hemispheres of the brain. This portion of the brain is crucial in regulating deep sleep and inhibiting movement during sleep to protect the dreamer from causing harm by accidentally acting out what he is dreaming during sleep.

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Cat Naps

There is no question that your cat can dream, and given the number of hours cats spend sleeping, one has to wonder what goes on in cats’ dreams.

Interestingly, being the organized, fastidious creatures they are, our feline friends tend to use their dreams to recall and organize the events of the day.

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In a 1959 study conducted by Michel Jouvet and his team, cats’ brains were altered to allow movement while they were sleeping.  Neuroscientists found that once the cats reached REM sleep, they moved as if they saw real-time images. 

Pets and Nightmares

Since cat dreams focus on actual events of the day, it makes sense that your cat might dream of a particularly negative event as he or she tries to make sense of it. It is similar to a human having an exaggerated dream about the worst part of his day. There is nothing wrong with your cat having a “nightmare.”   If you notice sleep behavior that is unusual for your pet, contact your veterinarian.

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However, if you notice your cat hissing and flailing about, it is probably best not to wake him, though your first instinct would be to relieve him of the bad dream.  Chances are he would be a bit disoriented at first and might resort to protective mode. He could bite or scratch you as he comes out of his nightmare. Better to be on the safe side and let him sleep it off.

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While any pet-parents who have ever watched their furry companions sleep probably don’t need a study to prove pets dream, compelling evidence suggests that dogs and cats are not the only animals who dream.

Wilson viewed his research as applying to the larger mammal species:

“Increasingly, we’re seeing that sleep and its functions, and very likely dreams, are something that is probably quite ubiquitous (across the animal kingdom).” 

 

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