Does your dog sleep upside down with its paws in the air, head buried in the couch cushions, and body twisted like a pretzel? While they make for hilarious pictures on your camera roll, you might be wondering if this topsy-turvey position is healthy and if they’re still able to breathe.
When dogs snooze at funny angles, it’s not only by choice. It’s all about their health, comfort, and ancestry.
Can Dogs Breathe When They Sleep On Their Backs?
“Dogs are smart,” says AKC Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Jerry Klein, DVM. “If breathing is difficult for them, they won’t put their bodies in a situation that restricts their airways.”
Because adult dogs average 12 to 14 hours of sleep per day, with puppies and seniors grabbing more ZZZs, their positions during these times affect their health.
Laying on their back while getting some shut-eye helps dogs cool off. Unlike people who sweat to control their body temperature, dogs perspire through the pads of their feet. Since short-coated and most long-coated dogs have less hair on their bellies, air circulates faster through the paw pads and abdomen to keep cool if they’re upright.
“Some dogs cool themselves off better when they lie on their back and expose themselves,” Dr. Klein says. “Zoey, my 4-year-old female Afghan, lies on her back with her legs sprawled out a way in front, and she can make herself stretch eight feet long.”
Who’s more at risk of staying cool? In hot or humid weather, puppies and older dogs are more susceptible to overheating than healthy adult dogs. Dogs who are overweight, suffer from cardiac or lung conditions, and recuperating from illness are especially vulnerable to heatstroke.
Brachycephalic or flat-faced breeds, such as Boston Terriers, Boxers, Bulldogs, Pugs, French Bulldogs, Shih Tzus, and Pekingese, also struggle with thermoregulating.
Can Flat-Faced Dogs Sleep on Their Backs?
“Flat-faced dogs tend to sleep with their paws up a lot less,” Dr. Klein says. “They might choose a frog man position with bellies down, and rear legs stretched out behind them with their pads up. It’s all based on their comfort level. If it’s uncomfortable, they won’t do it.”
It’s no wonder that these dogs get creative to keep cool. When the weather heats up, that expensive, padded pillow you recently bought for your dog takes second place to a spot on the cold floor. If there’s a breeze from a portable fan or an open door, count on a canine to hog it.
How can you help keep your dog cool? Special dog beds may help. Gel-cooled mats feel good to dogs, especially when the temperature heats up. Elevated dog beds can also provide a much-needed breeze below them.
For senior dogs who suffer from arthritis or are recovering from an injury or surgery, back sleeping avoids added pressure on sore muscles and joints. But getting an orthopedic dog bed can help ease any pain.
The History of Dogs Sleeping on Their Backs
Another reason for nodding off bellies up relates to their ancestry. “By exposing their bellies and elongating their bodies, they make themselves vulnerable,” Dr. Klein says. “It means they feel relaxed and mentally comfortable in your household.”
When dogs lie on their back, it signals a submissive posture. If another dog approaches, rolling over belly up translates to, “I’m not a threat—please walk away and don’t bother me.”
Why will a dog roll onto their back from a different sleeping position? Ask a dog what it’s doing dozing on the good couch when it knows that’s never allowed, and expect to see its belly followed by a sheepish, guilty look!
In the wild, when dogs slept outdoors in a curled-up position, they felt they had to protect themselves from predators and did not sleep on their backs. “Guardian and herding breeds whose job involves watching flocks never sleep on their backs,” Dr. Klein says. “Somehow, they manage to doze with one eye open in case they have to jump up in a hurry. Form follows function even in sleeping.”
In cold or inclement weather, the dream state takes another form. Stomachs on the ground in a tight ball mean the dog is preserving body heat. “They need to conserve energy as they may feel anxious,” Dr. Klein says.
The only danger of a dog asleep on its back is slipping and falling off a bed because it feels so relaxed. “Otherwise, there’s no problem,” he explains.