Do Dogs Dream?
Those little foot twitches 🥺
There’s nothing cuter than when your dog’s little paws are twitching in her sleep.
But it’s probably made you wonder: Do dogs dream like people do?
We spoke with Dr. Megan Dundas, veterinarian and practice owner at Lincolndale Veterinary Center in New York, to find out just what’s going on in your sleepyhead’s sleepy head.
Do dogs dream in their sleep?
For a long time, no one actually knew if dogs could even have dreams.
Since your pup can’t just wake up from a nap and tell you all about the weird dream she just had, scientists had to figure it out by discovering similarities between dogs’ sleep stages and ours (since we know for sure that people dream).
“It is thought that dogs do dream, because studies have shown that dogs have sleep stages, including the REM stage, which is when most dream activity occurs in people,” Dr. Dundas told The Dodo.
But does the fact that dogs go through a REM stage mean they actually dream?
Well, scientists studied rats and found that they do, in fact, dream. So, researchers concluded that dogs must dream, too!
Are animals’ dreams like ours?
David M. Peña-Guzmán, author of “When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness,” went through a ton of animal sleep studies to figure out whether or not other species dream the same way we do.
“We do have enough evidence to believe that other species have these nightly experiences of a fantastical, almost phantasmagoric world,” Peña-Guzmán told the University of Chicago’s “Big Brains” podcast.
While Peña-Guzmán doesn’t really single out dogs in this discussion, he mentions how electricity can indicate that an animal is dreaming.
“In the middle of the sleep cycle, typically there is a moment when the electrical activity, the patterns of neuronal activation that we see coming out of the animal brain begin to resemble those of the waking state,” Peña-Guzmán said. “They match them one to one to the point where we can start making some pretty impressive inferences.”
(That happens when we sleep, too, which is how we know those activity levels are linked to dreaming.)
How do dogs’ dreams work?
In order to know how your dog’s dreams work, you’ve got to know about how her sleep cycles work.
“Dogs typically sleep anywhere from 9 to 14 hours in 45-minute sleep periods, with the phases of sleep divided into a wakefulness state, drowsiness, non-REM sleep and REM sleep,” Dr. Dundas explained.
REM stands for rapid eye movement, and it means exactly what it sounds like: Your dog is asleep, but her eyes are moving rapidly and her brain is almost acting like she’s awake (even though she’s asleep).
That’s when she’s going to be dreaming.
“During REM sleep, the neurons of the brain are still active,” Dr. Dundas said. “However, there is a ‘switch’ of sorts that disconnects the motor neurons in the spinal cord from the neuronal activity of the brain.”
Basically, your dog’s brain is still going during REM sleep, but that “switch” keeps her legs from moving.
Why do dogs twitch in their sleep?
“During REM sleep, most muscles are immobile with the exception of some facial muscles, the larynx, paws, tail, diaphragm and muscles of the ribs,” Dr. Dundas explained.
That means that when your dog’s neurons are firing — signaling her to chase that car she’s dreaming about — only her paws, tail or nose will twitch, since those muscles aren’t immobile like her legs are.
It’s also the reason why you can hear your pup whimpering in her sleep.
“What seems like whining could be attributed to the movement of the muscles of the diaphragm pushing air through the larynx or voice box,” Dr. Dundas said.
And sometimes, that neuron switch that’s supposed to keep your dog’s legs from moving doesn’t actually shut off her motor functions, which is why you might feel like you can see your dog dreaming super intensely.
“The brain's activity is then allowed to become motor activity, and the dog's movements can become vigorous or even violent,” Dr. Dundas explained. “The behaviors seen in these situations are thought to be similar to humans acting out dreams.”
“I think it's fair to say that it is similar to sleepwalking in humans,” Dr. Dundas continued. “We can't know what dogs are dreaming about, and we are making the assumption that they are dreaming in the first place. So we're assuming that if they are running in their dreams that the coordinated foot movements seen when sleeping, or growling/gnashing behavior, is a sign that the dog is acting out a dream.”
What do you do when your dog is dreaming?
“As the old saying goes, it is usually best to let sleeping dogs lie,” Dr. Dundas said.
Even if you think your dog is having a nightmare, you’re going to want to let her ride it out.
“If you suspect your dog is having a bad dream, wait until the outward signs of the dream have ended and you can then wake your dog to give some comfort,” Dr. Dundas explained.
That’s because it could be super startling for your pup if she’s suddenly woken up out of nowhere — just like how you feel really weird when you abruptly snap awake in the middle of a nightmare.
“The combination of the excited state of a bad dream and being woken up from a deep sleep could lead to an inadvertent bite,” Dr. Dundas explained.
So if your dog is dreaming, just let her dream! Besides, it’s super cute to watch those teeny toes twitching away.