When Fido’s curled on the couch and his legs start twitching, you want to think that he’s happily dreaming of chasing sticks in the park. Dogs do dream (and if you read our post Does My Pet Dream? you’d know this). But could he instead be fleeing from a frightening canine monster?
Thought it’s not been unequivocally verified, evidence suggests our pets have nightmares, just like us.
That’s so sad.
Indeed. Since the 1960s, scientists have known that animal sleep patterns closely resemble ours. In 1965, French scientists discovered that cats would act out their dreams if a part of the brainstem called the pons were removed. Without the pons, the sleeping cats would prowl the lab, exhibiting aggressive behavior.
Thankfully, with advances in technology, scientists can get readings on the sleeping minds of animals with much less invasive techniques. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have shown that when animals dream, they draw from their memories of the day; they also replay events that occurred while they were awake.
So it seems that animals dream like people — haphazardly assembling familiar and foreign images to create story lines or tableaux that the waking mind would consider surreal (but make sense while we’re sleeping). It wouldn’t be surprising if animals drew on an unhappy memory for a dream.
While animals don’t suffer from anxiety like humans do, pet advice writers at Terribly Terriers remind us that dogs and cats do have unpleasant experiences, whether it's a visit to the vet or an altercation with another animal (not to mention abuse by human hands). Anyone who’s cared for a skittish rescue dog or cat knows that it can become startled or jumpy over what seems like nothing.
Can we tell the difference between good and bad dreams?
Not really. It’s impossible to know what animals are dreaming about since, obviously, they can’t share their dreams with us. But many owners believe their pets' body language offers clues as to whether they are having a good dream or a bad one. If little Fluffy twitches a paw or shakes a leg, for instance, it’s assumed to be an unpleasant dream.
But for cats, at least, those physical signs could be misleading. Cat expert David Greene told Petful that you know cats are dreaming when they’re in an “utterly slack and relaxed condition,” proving once again that cats are entirely composed of duplicity and fur.
How can I help?
Even if you could know for sure that your pet is having a nightmare, there’s not much you can do about it. Experts say you shouldn’t wake Rover or Ginger because he or she will be startled, and could possibly bite or even attack. Judging from anecdotal evidence, dogs and cats aren’t immediately aware of the difference between dreaming and being awake.
Worries about canine nightmares are common, and some veterinarians have been known to prescribe homeopathic doggie anxiety meds (brand names Anxitane or Composure) to treat them. The jury is out as to whether the meds works.
However, judging from a pair of YouTube clips that went viral in 2014, there’s a surefire remedy for canine nightmares: Having a fellow pooch hug you until you sleep peacefully again. Likewise, kittens with troubled sleep seem to rest much easier after a loving bear hug from a momma cat.