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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Do Animals Dream?

My adopted dog, Roxy, survived in a drainage ditch during the wettest and coldest time of the year with compound fractures of both wrists (bones protruding through open wounds), in coyote infested territory for 5 ½ weeks. Most nights, while fast asleep, she vocalizes; from pathetic whimpers to ferocious protective growls to unidentifiable, non-descript sounds. Is she dreaming of those lonely, fearful nights in the ditch? Is she longing for her former life? Is she dreaming at all? I think all of the above but she can’t confirm it for me. So I sought to investigate the possibility that animals dream. This data is far from scientifically defensible but I think worthy of speculation.

Dr. Stanley Coren, Dream Researcher

Dr. Stanley Coren, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, confirms that “at the structural level, the brains of dogs are similar to those of humans.” He also notes that during sleep their brain wave patterns are similar to that of people. These electrical stages of activity are consistent with the idea of dreaming in dogs.

His research is corroborated by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who have very suggestive evidence that sleeping rats dream. Rats that were subjected to a complex maze had the same electrical brain recordings during the actual maze training as they did while asleep, presumably dreaming of the maze activity. The dreams waves were so specific that researchers could identify the exact point in the maze that the rats were dreaming about.

The Dog's Dreaming Brain

The dog brain is even more complex than the rat brain, so it is not a far leap to assume that dogs also dream. In fact, studies have shown that dogs exhibited body movement only at brain wave stages associated with dreaming. “Dreaming Springer Spaniels flushed imaginary birds, while Doberman Pinchers picked fights with dream burglars.”

Dr. Coren’s Observations on Dog Dreams

“It is really quite easy to determine when your dog is dreaming without resorting to brain surgery or electrical recordings. All that you have to do is to watch him from the time he starts to doze off. As the dog's sleep becomes deeper, his breathing will become more regular. After a period of about 20 minutes, for an average-sized dog, his first dream should start. You will recognize the change because his breathing will become shallow and irregular. There may be odd muscle twitches, and you can even see the dog's eyes moving behind its closed lids if you look closely enough. The eyes are moving because the dog is actually looking at the dream images as if they were real images of the world. These eye movements are most characteristic of dreaming sleep. When human beings are awakened during this rapid eye movement or REM sleep phase, they virtually always report that they were dreaming.”

Cat Dreams

It appears cats also dream and act out wake behaviors. Researchers have witnessed “sleepwalking cats walking, swatting their forepaws, even pouncing on imaginary prey.”

Do Our Pets Dream?

Personally, I think so. The scientist in me has doubts about the quality of the present research and extrapolation to various animal species. However, Roxy experiences something most nights that is undeniable. Your thoughts are welcome.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: esmo / Shutterstock

Comments  4

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  • 07/18/2013 10:49am

    Yes I believe my dogs dream. Many nights I wake up to hearing little whimpers and grunts coming from the foot of my bed. My rescue Bruiser too was found roaming the ditches, severely dehydrated. His now beautiful Shih Tzu coat matted beyond repair. No one knows how long he was out there, so I can only imagine the horrors he experienced. He was picked up and put in the shelter, only to have no luck finding a forever home. He was on his last day and the shelter called my rescue friend (that had groomed him when he was first found) and told her he was being put down and she couldn't let that happen so she adopted him and that is how he met me. Considering his past he is a great dog. I have no doubt that he relives that time of abandonment in his dreams.

    07/18/2013 01:29pm

    I especially see indications when something frightening has recently happened. My male Westie is very much prone to it. More memories as they age. We all know dogs can remember people for many years and remember scenes and places. My female Westie is less inclined; also younger, but still to a degree has episodes. I also think the sensitivity level of the dog has some bearing on dreams. I am disinclined to think there is no " scientifically defensible" data for it. The rapid eye movement (REM) period is so obvious.

  • Puzzling question, then..
    07/18/2013 02:46pm

    Interesting subject. I too believe that animals dream. But doesn't that raise an interesting question... namely, how do they (or, DO THEY?) know it was only a dream?

    We as adults can wake up in the morning and KNOW we weren't in Bangkok last night, or that our mother in law (who is deceased) did not really visit and bring a pie.

    My 3 year old once woke up convinced we had lifted off in a hot air balloon from our back yard. It took a LOT of convincing to finally help her understand that she had a very realistic DREAM.

    Out of the blue recently, my gentle, loving Ragdoll cat has become quite aggressive towards my daughter's friendly new puppy, whom he had previously accepted cheerfully. Makes me wonder if my cat dreamed that the puppy did something to him -- and my cat thinks this was real?!

    It would be quite a cosmic quirk if animals dreamed active, vivid, realistic dreams, but lacked the cognition and understanding to know that these were in fact, only dreams.

  • Dreaming of Dinner
    07/18/2013 06:36pm

    My Ivy Elizabeth would "drink" while dreaming. If I put my finger against her mouth, she would gently suck on it. After a few moments, she would awake and give me a look like "that was false advertising!"

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