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Pets dream while sleeping

Original Publication Date: July 27, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

The average dog sleeps about 12 to 14 hours in a 24-hour period.

Cats top that and sleep 16 to 18 hours each day.

Pets do not take one long snooze. Instead, they grab a lengthy nap here and 40 winks there until they are definitely well-rested.

You may wonder what goes on in your pet's brain for so many quiet hours. Occasionally they may twitch, paddle their feet or even bark or meow in their sleep and appear to be dreaming. Our furry four-legged friends cannot tell us if they dream, but many scientists believe there is strong evidence to support the fact that dogs and cats definitely dream.

Humans and pets cycle through rapid eye movement and non-REM sleep. During non-REM sleep, or deep sleep, the body repairs itself. In contrast, REM sleep, or active sleep, reorganizes the pattern of excitability of neurons in the hippocampus of the brain. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that controls the memory in all mammals. It is during REM that dreams occur.

Since the hippocampus is wired similarly in rats, cats and dogs, research on the REM sleep of one yields insight on the dreams of all. Matthew Wilson, a neurophysiologist at MIT, charted the activity of the hippocampus of rats as they learned to run a maze. He could tell every step the rats took and even if they were running or walking. He then measured the hippocampal activity of the rats as they slept and found they replayed their journey through the maze in their dreams.

Wilson suggested dreams are a way of sorting through the day's activities and replaying and reinforcing important events. The same occurs during REM sleep in our pets.

The eyes of a dog or cat move rapidly behind his eyelids during REM sleep. They lose all muscle tension and relax completely. On average, dogs spend 25 percent of their slumber in REM sleep. A dog in REM may paddle his feet as if running, wag his tail, or give a soft yip or bark. They are probably dreaming of their doggie deeds. The REM dream state may last longer than the observable physical movements of the dog.

Cats usually stay in REM about 30 percent of their sleeping time. When a cat dreams of experiences from their life they may twitch their whiskers and tail, extend and retract their claws, raise their lip or even give a muted meow. They dream of prowling, pouncing on prey or other feline pastime may be lengthier than their noticeable antics.

Some pets appear to be distressed when dreaming and scientists believe that they, like people, can have nightmares or dreams that recall unsettling memories. Hopefully, scary dreams are few and far between for your pet. Sweet pets should have only sweet dreams.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at