As I write this, my dog is napping next to me. Every once in a while, she'll twitch in her sleep; her eyes, nose, lips, and feet moving as if she is dreaming about chasing something.
But is she?
Have you ever stopped to wonder why dogs twitch in their sleep, or if this seemingly benign behavior could be a problem?
Veterinarians and researchers have been studying animal sleep behavior for a while now, and some of the answers to your questions may surprise you.
Why Do Animals Twitch in Their Sleep?
Your dog is not the only one that twitches in his sleep. As it turns out, almost every animal scientists have studied experiences this phenomenon, which is known as myoclonic twitches.
Puppies and other infant animals are especially twitchy in their sleep. Some scientists suggest that this has something to do with early development. These twitches could, on a simplified level, be the body's way of figuring out “what is this limb, and what am I supposed to do with it?” For now this is just a theory, but the more we learn about sleep in animals and humans, the more answers we will have about the role sleep and myoclonic twitches play in our development.
Like puppies, senior dogs also twitch more than middle-aged adult dogs. One theory proposed that could explain this is that the part of the dog's brain that paralyzes the large muscles during sleep (preventing your dog from actually jumping up to chase that dream squirrel) is underdeveloped in puppies and less efficient in old dogs.
Regardless of the reasoning, even middle-aged dogs twitch, which means there is definitely something going on in your dog's head when he's asleep. Your dog isn't alone in this. You may have noticed that you or your loved ones twitch in their sleep, sometimes resulting in an accidental elbow jab or kick.
These twitches are believed to be associated with dreams.
Do Dogs Dream?
Since we can't exactly ask our dogs if they can dream and if so, what they dream about, science has come up with some interesting ways to determine if dogs and other animals dream.
A 2001 study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that laboratory rats trained to run in a maze exhibited similar brain activity during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to that when they were actually in the maze, leading researchers to conclude that the rats were dreaming about the maze they ran in earlier. Their data was so specific, in fact, that they could determine where in the maze the rat was dreaming itself just by looking at the unique signature of the rat's brain activity.
Since rats are less complex than dogs, it seems safe to conclude that our dogs dream, too.
We can't know exactly what dogs dream about, since scientists have not studied them as closely as they have studied rats, but researchers have observed that certain breeds of dogs tend to perform breed-specific behavior in their sleep. Pointers, for instance, point, and English Springer Spaniels exhibit flushing behavior during REM sleep.
Should I Wake My Dog Up From a Nightmare?
Dreaming about a pleasant activity, such as chasing a ball or hunting, is one thing, but what about those times when your dog seems distressed during sleep? Those whimpers, tiny howls, and barks tug at our heartstrings, and many owners are tempted to wake their dogs the way they would a child having a nightmare.
This may not be the best idea. Disrupting a dog during REM sleep, which is the sleep cycle in which most dreams occur, can result in serious consequences.
If you've ever been woken up in the middle of a bad dream, then you know that it can take a few seconds for your brain to realize you are awake, and that the monster is not breathing down your neck. Like us, dogs take a moment to adjust, as well, but unlike with us, when a dog is awakened in the middle of a nightmare, it can lead to an unintended bite. This is dangerous for all members of your household, so be sure to explain to any children or houseguests that waking up a dreaming dog is not safe.
If nothing else, disrupting your dog's sleep can make him sleepy, which can be a problem for working dogs or dogs involved in showing and sports.
The best thing you can do for a dog experiencing a nightmare is to be there to comfort him when he wakes up.
What if My Dog Is Having a Seizure?
Sometimes a dream is not a dream at all. The AKC's Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Jerry Klein, explains the difference between normal twitching during sleep and a seizure.
“All dogs dream, and some manifest dreaming with twitching, paddling, or kicks of their legs. These movements are often brief (lasting less than 30 seconds) and intermittent,” he says. “Seizing dogs' limbs, on the other hand, tend to be rigid and stiffer, with more violent movement.”
He goes on to explain that seizing dogs cannot be easily woken, (not that you should attempt to wake up a sleeping dog for safety reasons), and that seizing dogs may also urinate or defecate during a seizure. Afterward, you may notice your dog drooling, panting, or acting disoriented.
Talk to your veterinarian if you suspect that your dog might be having seizures in his sleep instead of dreaming. Seizures can have a variety of causes, from epilepsy to cancer, and it is in your dog's best interest to be seen immediately to try and diagnose the cause.
What Should I Do if My Dog Is Twitching in His Sleep?
Unless you suspect that your dog might be having a seizure, twitching during sleep is normal. Follow the old adage “let sleeping dogs lie,” and, if you are like me, take a moment to reflect on how adorable your dog is while she sleeps, and wonder what she might be dreaming about.