If you’ve ever spent time watching a cat sleep, they can seem quite active at times. While a snoozing cat is usually a comfortable ball of sleepy contentment or sprawling happily in her favourite sunbeam for a nap, they can become quite active. In their deepest sleep cats seem to live out their favourite activities, real or imagined. Ears twist and turn as if to catch imaginary sounds, tails twitching in eagerness, paws paddle the air as if giving chase. But is your furry companion experiencing dreams in the same way we do? If your cat is dreaming, are they good dreams or bad?
Can cats have nightmares? Yes, it seems that they can. While nobody can ask cats to describe their dreams, brain scans show mental activity during sleep that corresponds to dream states. This means that cats probably endure nightmares in a similar way to people.
If you’ve come to this page, you probably have questions about your cat’s dream life. Maybe your cat seems unusually agitated during sleep or perhaps you’re just curious.
- Do cats dream? If so, what do they dream about?
- Do cats experience nightmares and other sleep disturbances?
- How can you help your cat if she seems to be having nightmares?
- Can you prevent nightmares in cats?
Luckily, we have all the answers you’re looking for. Read on for find out everything you need to know about the fascinating dream life of your sleeping cat, how you can spot nightmares and how to help a cat who’s sleeping poorly.
Can cats have nightmares?
It seems very likely that cats have nightmares in much that same way that we do. A cat is a fairly intelligent animal and certainly possesses the level of mental development required to dream.
Dreaming seems to be nearly universal among the higher animals. Thanks to studies on their brains, even much simpler animals than the cat are known to dream. Rats and mice can dream; small birds dream their territorial and mating songs as they sleep. It’s hardly a surprise that similar studies conducted on cats have shown that they dream too.
The history of dream research in animals goes back for many years, probably before the advent of modern medicine. Perhaps the most significant research, however, began in the late 1950s. Not long after the discovery of REM sleep and its connection to dreaming in humans, scientists turned their attention to the dreams of laboratory animals.
Early tests on rats and mice involved monitoring the animals’ brains as they ran through mazes, as well as when they were asleep. Researchers discovered that the animals’ brain activity during the REM parts of their sleep cycle tended to recreate their waking experiences very closely. Researchers could even pinpoint the exact locations in the mazes that the animals were dreaming about.
In later tests that used cats as subjects, the part of the cats’ brains that suppresses movement during sleep was disabled. During REM, the cats were seen to lift their heads, look around, and generally attempt to act out their dreams. EEGs of sleeping cats’ brains show significant activity during REM sleep. It’s clear that cats do dream, although of course we can’t read their dream journals and know what they’re dreaming about.
Clues to the feline dreamscape can, however, be derived from the activities we see them engaging in while asleep. Cats often move their legs and paws as if walking or running. They may meow, purr, or make that curious chattering noise they produce when they see birds. I’ve even seen sleeping cats hiss or snarl as if confronting an enemy. Thus, while we can’t know exactly what they’re dreaming of, it is reasonable to say that cats have unpleasant dreams where they experience things that frighten or anger them.
Sometimes a cat woken up from one of these dreams will seem anxious and disoriented. You may find that a cat who’s woken up from a nightmare might want to run off and hide or will scratch and claw the nearest person out of a sense of self-protection. At other times, she may want to be comforted — much like a child who has woken up from a bad dream.
Why does my cat have nightmares?
Sleep disturbances in cats are not uncommon. It’s natural for an average cat to get well over twelve hours of sleep per day, usually broken up into naps. A cat who doesn’t get enough sleep, or who is troubled by sleep disturbances, may become fractious and run down.
You may find that your cat suffers these unpleasant dream episodes more if she’s under some kind of stress. It might seem impossible for a cat to suffer from stress — they are fed, cosseted and have no predators indoors, after all. Cats, though, do not see their environments the same way we do. Lots of perfectly safe and normal things around them may be terrifying, or at least stressful, for a cat.
Changes to a cat’s environment can be a big source of stress. A new pet, a new baby, even a new item of furniture can be scary and baffling. If you’ve only brought the cat home recently, her sleep may be a little restless until she adjusts to her new living situation.
Your cat may become stressed if you go out and leave her home alone a great deal. Conversely, some cats become stressed if their owners insist on too much interaction. If you have a clingy “lap-cat” and your workdays are long or erratic, consider having someone look in on her during the day.
Other cats can be a big problem for your pet’s stress levels, even if they’re not in the house. Just having a strange or hostile cat come and sit outside your home might be enough to put your cat on edge. Try deterring other cats from your property, or at least cover windows that your cat might see them from.
My cat usually sleeps fine but now I think she’s having bad dreams. What should I do?
Changes in a cat’s sleeping habits aren’t unusual, especially after some kind of disruption such as those described above. With that said, you should take severely disturbed sleep seriously. Your cat may have an infection or injury that’s causing them discomfort. Very badly disrupted sleep can also be a sign that your cat is dealing with some kind of neurological issue. This would need to be investigated by a vet. If your cat seems to be sleeping for less than ten hours a day, you should probably mention this to a medical professional.
There are lots of health issues that could disturb a cat’s sleep. These include things like strains or sprains — very easy for a cat to do as they leap and run around. Cats are absolute masters of deception and will carefully hide injuries from you. Give your cat a gentle inspection, running your hands over her limbs, back, tail and undercarriage. Sprains and other injuries may reveal themselves as swellings or “hot spots” under her fur.
Another issue that comes up a lot in cats is the dreaded UTI. Cats are often dehydrated and can develop infections due to this. Check to see if your cat is urinating regularly and without pain. Cats are also prone to things like kidney stones and other problems associated with urinary issues. These conditions can be painful enough to disrupt sleep and even give your cat bad dreams.
It’s worth checking a restless or under-sleeping cat for other symptoms. If your cat is looking scruffy and badly groomed, this is a sign that something is wrong. A lack of proper grooming means that your cat is dealing with some kind of problem — possibly something that’s impairing her mobility so that she can’t groom easily or without pain. If your cat seems agitated while awake, vocalises more than usual and is generally acting out of character, you should check in with your vet to make sure everything’s okay.
How to help your cat with nightmares
You can help your cat by de-stressing her environment, as mentioned above. Little treats of catnip once or twice a day can help her relax, although senior cats often aren’t interested in catnip.
Make sure your cat gets plenty of stimulating play while she’s awake. Cats need, at the bare minimum, two good solid 15-minute slots where they are engaged in physical play. Set aside sometime each day to bring out the teaser toys and get your cat moving. My favourites are the fishing-rod type toys, where you dangle a tempting bundle of bells and feathers at the end of a long line on a flexible pole. These are great because you can give your kitty a great workout without needing to get up off the sofa. I try to schedule one round of playtime before I go off to work, one after I come home, and one just before I go to bed.
Some cats require more intellectual stimulation than others. If you have one of those cats who’s forever getting into things, working out how to operate doorknobs and mastering other complex skills, her brain is probably not getting enough stimulation. Make sure she gets plenty in the way of puzzle toys: games and gadgets that require some thought and activity on the part of the cat and which offer a reward of correctly manipulated. Giving your cat something to engage her waking mind might help her sleeping mind become calmer.
Your cat is probably distressed after waking up from a bad dream. Be patient with her, even if she seems aggressive and is playing up. She doesn’t want to hurt you — she’s only scared and confused. A little empathy will go a long way.