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Key Points
  • Puppies and senior dogs tend to twitch in their sleep more than other dogs.
  • Psychologists theorize that dogs dream about their daily experiences.
  • It’s best not to wake a dog, even from a nightmare.

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’s dreaming about chasing something.

But is she dreaming?

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 who twitches in his sleep. As it turns out, many animals experience this phenomenon.

Puppies and other infant animals are especially twitchy in their sleep. Like puppies, senior dogs also twitch more than middle-aged adult dogs. One theory is when the dog is asleep, his brain stem (especially the pons and medulla) sends signals to relax muscles, and this prevents your dog from actually jumping up to chase that dream squirrel. Perhaps this part of the brain stem is underdeveloped in puppies and less efficient in old dogs.

Regardless of the reasoning, even middle-aged dogs twitch, which means there’s definitely something going on in your dog’s head when he’s asleep. These twitches are believed to be associated with dreams.

Do Dogs Dream?

Since we can’t exactly ask our dogs if they dream and 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. The data was so precise, in fact, that researchers could determine where in the maze the rat was dreaming about just by looking at the unique signature of the rat’s brain activity.

Stanley Coren, neuropsychological researcher, has studied the sleep cycles of dogs and says, “At the structural level, the brains of dogs are similar to those of humans. Also, during sleep, the brain wave patterns of dogs are similar to that of humans and go through the same stages of electrical activity observed in humans — all consistent with the idea that dogs are dreaming.”

Coren suggests that you can determine when your dog is dreaming. About 20 minutes after an average-sized dog falls asleep, his first dream should start. His breathing will become shallow and irregular, there may be muscle twitches, and his eyes might move behind closed lids because the dog is looking at the dream images as if they were real. When people are awakened during this rapid eye movement or REM sleep phase, they usually report that they were dreaming.

What Do Dogs Dream About?

We can’t know exactly what dogs dream about, but researchers have observed that certain breeds of dogs tend to perform breed-specific behavior in their sleep when the pons is inactivated. Pointers, for instance, point, and English Springer Spaniels exhibit flushing behavior during REM sleep.

Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett, past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, suggests it’s likely that dogs dream about their everyday experiences, just like humans. “Since dogs are generally extremely attached to their human owners, it’s likely your dog is dreaming of your face, your smell, and of pleasing or annoying you,” she says.

Learn more about whether dogs dream.

Should I Wake My Dog Up From a Nightmare?

Dreaming about a pleasant activity is one thing, but what about 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 from a possible nightmare.

This may not be the best idea. There’s a reason for the adage “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Disrupting a dog during REM sleep can result in serious consequences. Touching a dog when he is dreaming may startle him and cause him to bite or scratch involuntarily.

If you feel the need to wake a sleeping dog, it’s better to call his name loudly or make a noise, such as dropping an object on the floor. Then you can gently reassure him if he’s startled.

What if My Dog Is Having a Seizure?

Sometimes twitching is not related to a dream at all. Twitches can be caused by muscle or nervous system disorders and seizures. 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.”

Most dogs have a seizure while awake or shortly after waking up. Some dogs, however, can have a seizure while asleep. Klein says seizing dogs can’t be easily woken. Dogs may also urinate or defecate during a seizure, but dreaming dogs normally will not. After a seizure, you may notice a 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’s best to have your dog examined and diagnosed as soon as possible.

Rest assured that twitching during sleep is most often normal, so you might just want to take a moment to wonder what your pooch is dreaming about – and hope his dreams are sweet ones.