Have you ever wondered if pets dream like we do – and if so, what our cats dream about? We look at what's going on in their heads while they sleep.
Cats love sleeping; they can spend up to 18 hours a day in the land of nod. You might notice your cat twitching their ears or moving their legs while they’re asleep – read on to discover whether this means cats dream while sleeping, and if so, what they might be dreaming of.
Do cats dream like humans?
Of course, there’s no way to know for sure whether your cat’s just woken from a particularly vivid dream – but what we know about feline brain anatomy suggests it’s likely cats dream in the same way we do. A cat’s brain is relatively similar in anatomy to our own, and studies have shown cats also undergo phases of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is the phase of sleep in which humans experience most of our dreams – and the same is probably true for our cats. As they dream, cats may twitch their paws or tail, move their heads from side to side, make small noises or twitch their mouths. You might also see your cat’s eyes moving under their eyelids, which shows they’re in REM sleep.
What do cats dream about?
Unfortunately, we can’t ask our cats what they’ve been dreaming about – but scientists believe cats’ dreams help them review and process what’s happened each day, in much the same way our own dreams do. Dreams also help cats learn and adjust their behaviour in the future. If you’ve been teaching your cat a new trick or given them a different toy, their dreams might be about these as their brains make new connections between behaviours.
During the REM phase of sleep, the hippocampus – the part of the brain that helps cats remember things and learn from them – is highly active. Scientists have found that during REM sleep, cats often move their heads from side to side, just like they do when following a toy or stalking their prey. So perhaps this means cats spend a fair amount of time dreaming about their favourite activities (aside from sleeping!).
Let sleeping cats lie
Dreams are an important way for your cat to process their day, and to make the most of their sleep time, our cats need plenty of opportunities to reach that all-important REM phase. To help them sleep deeply, make sure your home is cat-friendly, with plenty of safe and comfortable places to rest. Though they might have a preferred location for longer naps, cats often sleep in many different spots throughout your house and garden, usually napping lightly throughout the day; sometimes when you see your cat’s tail twitching or ears moving they might not be dreaming but reacting to noises from their environment. Try not to disturb your cat, even if they’re sleeping somewhere you didn’t expect them to be. Remember, cats need a significant amount of shut-eye, and it’s hard to predict at which point your cat will reach the REM phase needed for dreams to occur. (If you hear them snoring, they’re probably in the deepest phase of sleep.)
It’s not clear whether cats have nightmares, though it’s certainly possible. If your cat does seem distressed while they’re sleeping, it’s best to leave them alone and allow them to wake naturally, then keep an eye on whether they’re unhappy or unsettled when they’re awake, too.
As cats get older, the amount of REM sleep they experience decreases. As a result, it’s likely that kittens dream more than adult cats – maybe they need that extra REM sleep because they’re learning and processing new information at a faster rate! While senior cats probably dream less, they often sleep more, to allow their bodies to rest and recover.
While we can’t ask our cats what they’ve been dreaming about, we can keep an eye on their sleeping patterns. If your cat starts sleeping a lot more than usual, or their normal sleep pattern is disturbed, it’s always worth checking with your vet that this isn’t down to an underlying health condition. Otherwise, rest assured those twitches during sleep are perfectly normal, and your cat is likely just dreaming about the day they’ve had – before starting all over again when they wake up.