If you have ever had a pet, you have probably seen it! You know, those little whisker twitches when your kitty sleeps, the soft yelps or leg tremors that look like Fido is chasing a rabbit or romping in the back yard.
Having raised and cherished five dogs and one cat over the last 44 years, my husband and I have watched many such scenes, seemingly played out, while our pets have slumbered.
Anastasia, our current dog, is a yellow lab/greyhound mix. When we adopted her, we were told that she had been abused and would need a calm, loving environment. Early on, her sleep was often fitful, with whimpering and restlessness evident. We always responded by soothing her, thinking that she might be having nightmares. After three years, her sleep patterns seem more restful but we continue to see the twitching.
We have often wondered if she, as well as our other dogs, had a dream life and if so, what they dreamed about? Perhaps they are dreaming about the walk they took that day with us, the play date with a canine friend, or perhaps they are enjoying, once again in their dreams, their favorite bone or a tidbit dropped by the grandchildren.
So, what exactly is happening? Are these movements only meaningless reflexes or could these be physical responses coming from our pets’ dreams? Scientists are coming to some interesting and research-based conclusions about whether our pets really dream and how their brain function compares to that of humans and their dreamland experiences.
The hippocampus is a part of the brain where memory function lives. Interestingly enough, our pet’s hippocampus is wired very much the same as ours. In comparing the hippocampus of cats, rats, and dogs to humans, scientists have seen that the same pieces are present in all of us.
Our stages of sleep are also similar. As with humans, our pets experience an initial light sleep stage and eventually move into REM (rapid eye movement), the period of sleep where dreams manifest themselves. Scientists also think our pets are similar to us in that the activities and events of their daily lives influence the content of their dreams.
So how do we know that our pets are dreaming?
Matthew Wilson, a researcher at MIT set out to answer this question. He studied the brain waves of rats while they learned a maze in waking life. The brain wave recordings were very specific while the rat was learning the maze. What Wilson discovered was that the rat’s brain waves during sleep were amazingly similar. He could actually determine at what point the rat was moving or not moving in what was likely the dream maze based on the original brain patterns.
According to research done by Psychologist Stanley Coren, author of How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind, the size of the animal has an impact on how often and how long they dream. Coren states that “mastiffs and Great Danes might dream every 45 minutes for about five minutes, compared to their smaller canine cousins that enter a dream state every 10 minutes with episodes lasting less than 60 seconds”.
That is a lot of dreaming when you think about how much time our pets spend snoozing!
Both Wilson & Coren agree that there is more research to be done regarding animals and their dreaming. They also assert that there is consistent evidence supporting the fact that our pets are living out an active dream life!
So, if you want to check out whether your dog, cat, or gerbil is dreaming, take a look at them while they are sleeping. If you see their paws and whiskers twitching or hear little squeaks, yelps or growls, it is likely that they are settling into REM and living out another version of their daytime activities.
I am guessing that these dreams involve us and the time they share with us in waking life. If only they could speak. What fun it would be to hear about their dream adventures. Oh the “tails” they could tell!
What do you think your pets dream about?