If you’ve ever owned or looked after a cat for some time, you’ll no doubt know they love to sleep and can do it for most of the day. In fact, on average, cats sleep roughly 15 hours per day, while some sleep up to 20 hours! You might have also noticed your cat making little movements or funny noises while they sleep. If so, this could be because of their dreams. That’s because cats sleep and dream in a very similar way to humans! Before we find out how and why cats dream, let’s first learn about their sleeping habits and how they compare to a human’s sleep.
Cats either lightly ‘doze’ or sleep deeply, the latter being the type of sleep in which dreaming occurs. Light sleep can last anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes while deep sleep can last hours and involves sleep cycles – much like a human’s sleep. During light sleep they will position themselves in such a way that they can pounce into action at a moment’s notice, if necessary. However, during deep sleep, cats will often curl up, arch their back and tuck their head into their body for a more comfortable, relaxed position while they sleep for longer.
So, Why do Cats Sleep so Much?
Cats are natural predators in the wild and domesticated cats maintain many instincts found in wild cats. As predators, they must store lots of energy to hunt, chase and attack in the wild, so sleep allows them to store this energy for when they need it. Wild cats will sleep for most of the day as they typically hunt at night or evening. Even house cats preserve their energy during the day by sleeping and this is the reason they become most active around evening/early night-time. However, as cats are social animals, they may alter their sleeping pattern to match their owner’s habits, especially to coincide with feeding times. Their instinctive behavior can also be seen while they sleep. As previously mentioned, their sleeping position during light sleep demonstrates they are prepared to move whenever necessary. Another aspect of this instinctive behavior may be observed through their unconscious movements during sleep. They often keep one eye open or gently tap their tail against a surface while sleeping which shows, despite resting, they are alert and paying attention to their environment. So, during sleep, cats may be aware of surrounding sounds, movements or smells.
Do Cats Dream Like Humans?
During deep sleep a cat’s behavior is noticeably different to its behavior during light sleep. As stated, dreaming occurs during deep sleep, more specifically, during the Rapid-Eye Movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle. In this stage, the eyes move rapidly and in correspondence to the images appearing during the individual’s dreams. The sleep cycle and REM sleep are common amongst most mammals but vary in length and order. While human sleep cycles last between 60 to 90 minutes, cat sleep cycles can last as little as 30 minutes with REM sleep only lasting approximately 5 minutes. During a deep sleep, REM and non-REM sleep alternate to form these sleep cycles which repeat continuously until awakening.
It is widely believed that the process of dreaming during REM sleep is to aid in brain development, to order information and to make sense of previous, real-life experiences. If this is to be considered true, it is certainly understandable why REM sleep cycles last for longer periods of time in young animals (including young kittens) as their brains constantly attempt to process and organize new information. In fact, kittens can spend up to 80% of their sleep dreaming while older cats only dream for about 20% of their deep sleep. It’s also probable that their dreams consist of previous experiences they may have faced as their unconscious movements (twitching whiskers, moving paws, gently vocalizing) are all notable behaviors during daily activities. This suggests cats dream about familiar situations and experiences, unlike fantastical dreams which humans may experience.
Can Cats Sleepwalk?
Just like humans, cats mostly dream during REM sleep while the motor functions in their body shut down. Essentially, during this stage of sleep the body is almost paralyzed as a defense mechanism to stop them from acting out their dreams unconsciously. However, when this mechanism does not work effectively or when dreaming occurs in non-REM sleep, the body may move in response to the visual stimuli in dreams. In this instance, unconscious movements can occur in the form of subtle movements and gestures or sleepwalking. If you own a cat you may notice during long periods of sleep, it may twitch, slightly move its paws, or even make noises which could indicate your cat is dreaming. Although cats may not walk around or move as much as humans while sleepwalking, their unconscious actions are certainly similar to those of sleepwalking.
However, the subtle movements cats make during sleep aren’t necessarily an indication of when or how much they are dreaming. As stated, dreaming mostly occurs during REM sleep, when the body is paralysed, so these movements are only likely to occur during non-REM sleep. David Greene, author of ‘Incredible Cats’ states, “the most significant indication of dreaming is [an] utterly slack and relaxed condition.” This suggests the little movements we notice while cats dream during light sleep (non-REM sleep) only represent a small portion of the amount of time they spend dreaming. Instead, it’s more likely your cat will be dreaming when they lie curled up in the same spot for hours and barely move at all.
Michael Jouvet (neuroscientist) proved this theory about cats’ unconscious actions and the content of their dreams in 1959 following an in-depth study into feline sleep and behavior. In this study, which is highly controversial and unethical by today’s standards, Jouvet proved that by surgically altering specific parts of cats’ brains they would become physically active during REM sleep, essentially acting out their dreams. This was achieved by disabling the section off the brain which is responsible for controlling motor functions during sleep – the locus coeruleus. During this study, the affected cats would demonstrate instinctive movements and behaviors such as walking, crawling, playing and stalking prey during REM sleep. Their actions and brainwaves were both monitored and compared during REM sleep and when awake in an attempt to link dreams to real-life experiences. The affected cats were observed to act out normal behaviors and actions during REM sleep while their brainwaves matched those during daily activities. Following this research, Jouvet concluded that they must be dreaming of daily activities during REM sleep.
Do Cats Experience Nightmares?
Yes, cats can experience nightmares just like humans! It is widely believed that cats may have recurring bad dreams, too. Although they may be very different in form and content to human nightmares, it is possible for cats to have bad dreams, nonetheless. If you’ve ever noticed a cat dreaming, identified through its subtle movements and sounds, you may have also witnessed a cat experiencing a nightmare. Regular dreams and nightmares can usually be differentiated through the character of a cat’s behavior. During bad dreams their physical actions may appear more hesitant, defensive or erratic, while their vocalizations may sound distressed or even upset – commonly heard as whimpering. A cat’s nightmares may be about their negative experiences they have recently faced as their brain processes this information during sleep. However, another popular belief is that nightmares, even amongst cats, are used by the brain to prepare an individual for the possibility of a negative situation which may arise in the future. If so, cats’ nightmares may involve confronting another animal, trying to find food or possibly losing their owner.
Through Jouvet’s study and other research we now know that cats sleep and dream in a similar way to humans and other mammals. Their sleep is structured in cycles and their dreams usually only occur during REM sleep, just like us. Although it is impossible to definitively prove the content of a cat’s dreams, we can likely assume their dreams reflect their daily habits as their actions during sleep mirror those of their conscious behavior. So, if you ever see your cat twitching, tail-wagging or hear them gently vocalizing while they sleep, its likely they are dreaming about playing with their favorite toy, chasing after a mouse, or maybe even playing with you.