No matter how strange the world seems to get, nothing seems to beat the weirdness that is night-time dreaming. From newborn babies to senior citizens, everybody dreams. You may be aware that when you dream, you often twitch, make involuntary movements or even talk! No doubt many partners have complained about it in the morning! But have you ever noticed that your dog twitches when he is asleep? Is he dreaming too? Well in today’s article, we will try to tackle the mysterious world of animal dreams.
So to help answer the title’s question: yes, dogs do dream! In fact all mammals, some birds and perhaps even reptiles dream as well. We know this because these animals have a phase of sleeping called REM sleep (more on this later) which is the time when most dreaming takes place. This means your dog twitching when he’s asleep could very well be him dreaming. As for what he could be dreaming about, that is just as mysterious as what a sleeping person might be dreaming about. There have been studies performed that allowed sleeping cats to move during REM sleep (normal REM sleep mostly paralyses the muscles), and they started to move about and act aggressively, like they were hunting. The researchers concluded that sleeping animals likely dream about activities they would perform during waking hours, which is in common with what people dream about. A similar study showed birds could sing songs while in REM sleep, showing perhaps they were dreaming about ‘practising’ their preferred tunes. You can probably take a good guess at what your dog is dreaming about based on how they act while they are apparently dreaming – some dogs will paddle their feet, make noises or even walk around a little while dreaming. Perhaps they imagine chasing squirrels in the park, catching a ball or eating something tasty they shouldn’t! But we may never definitively know what animals dream about…
What about remembering a dream? We can sometimes remember our dreams after we wake up, so do animals remember as well? This too, we do not know. It’s hard to know how much animals remember from their waking hours, so remembering dreams is an even bigger mystery to us. And nightmares? Well, as you have probably guessed, since we don’t know what animals dream about, we can’t know if the dream was about a nice tasty steak, or a big terrifying hoover. Anecdotally, sometimes animals seem to be more distressed while dreaming than others, which would fit with the human presentation of having a nightmare, so it seems reasonable they would.
What’s in a Dream?
So you now know that both humans and animals have dreams! Everyone has them, everyone knows what they are, but have you ever tried to describe what a dream actually is? You might be surprised to find that scientists aren’t really sure what dreams are either; and they’re definitely not sure what they are for. We define dreams as any images, sensations, thoughts or emotions that occur whilst asleep. As mentioned above, most dreaming takes place during rapid eye movement, or REM sleep. REM sleep is the period of sleep where the body is most relaxed (indeed almost paralysed) but the brain is most active, almost on par with activity whilst awake. These are the dreams that are the strangest, the longest and usually the ones we remember.
And what about why we even have dreams? Once again, we don’t know! We aren’t even sure why we need sleep at all (though we are getting closer to an answer and there is more evidence it helps the brain repair and process memories, and the body recover from the day), so the function of dreams remains far out of our understanding. We can guess, however: one idea is that it is a by-product of the brain working while asleep, and isn’t inherently useful. Another is that it is the brain acting out previous memories (that might be why some dreams are similar to past events). A third is that it is training the fight-or-flight mechanism for actual danger in real life (this would fit with REM sleep paralysing the muscles so you don’t kick or punch every time you dream… though of course some people do!). There have also been various theories from the field of psychology such as that they allow us to explore ideas or experiences that we could not in real life. As we have repeated throughout this article, we really don’t know – but whatever the reasons are, it is likely animals dream for similar reasons.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Throughout, we’ve been assuming that our twitchy dog was dreaming – but there are a few other reasons why your dog might be twitching while asleep that aren’t dreaming. Like people, some dogs can have neurological conditions that cause occasional twitching – though likely you would notice these while awake too. Probably the only other consideration would be a seizure – mild seizures, or the period just before seizuring, do occur whilst asleep and can be very mild. However, seizuring more often occurs after exercise or excitement, and usually present worse than simple twitching. If your dog twitching while asleep is a regular and mild occurrence, you can safely assume he is dreaming sweet dreams, and let sleeping dogs lie.