Cats are like us in many ways, but do they dream? If so, what do they dream about, and how can you tell that they’re dreaming?
Do cats dream when they’re asleep? All evidence suggests that they do. Cats have sleep phases like we do, i.e. deep sleep and REM sleep. REM sleep is when almost all dreaming occurs, and is characterized by high levels of activity in certain parts of the brain. Cats display this brain activity like we do when we sleep. They also twitch and their eyes move around under their closed eyelids, as, again, is the case with people. That being said a cat’s dreams are probably unlike ours, and rely more on smell and sound than visuals like our dreams.
The guide below will look at each kind of evidence in turn—owner experience, scientific study and rational explanation—to figure out whether cats really dream or not. We’ll also look at how you can tell when your cat is dreaming, just in case you didn’t know!
Do Cats Have Dreams?
Cats almost certainly have dreams. Ask any owner and they’ll tell you that they’ve seen their cat have a dream. During one of their cat’s frequent naps, they will have seen its legs twitching and its eyes rolling under their closed eyelids. Science backs up owner experience in showing that cats have similar brain activity patterns during certain sleep cycles as we do when we dream.
What’s also likely, though, is that cats’ dreams aren’t the same as our dreams. Since we are highly social animals, most of our dreams involve social situations involving other people. Cats aren’t as social as we are, and don’t have as varied lives as we do. That means they likely don’t have as varied dreams as we do, although that can’t be said for sure.
Cats also have different senses to us. Our sense of sight is good while our sense of smell is weak, while for cats, the opposite is true. As such it’s likely that cats smell things in their dreams more than we do, and don’t see things clearly in their dreams like we do. The same is true for sounds, as a cat’s sense of hearing is better than ours.
How Do We Know That Cats Dream?
There are three kinds of evidence which could tell us that cats dream.
The first is rational evidence. Given what we know about the purpose and origins of dreaming, it stands to reason that cats can dream like we can. That applies even though we can’t get inside our cats’ heads and see what they’re actually dreaming about.
The second kind is indirect evidence. We know for example that cats display brain activity in the same areas of the brain during sleep as we do when we dream.
The third kind would be direct evidence. Since we can’t watch our cats’ dreams with sci-fi mind-meld helmets, we can’t say that they do dream with as much certainty as we say, for example, that gravity is real. But given the other kinds of evidence available, it’s very reasonable to assume that they do.
Let’s take a look at that evidence…
Rational Evidence That Cats Dream
As stated above, you can’t see what a cat is dreaming, and your cat can’t tell you what it dreamt of. But what we know about dreaming and what we know about cats leads to the rational conclusion that they dream too.
While we can’t be absolutely sure, there does seem to be an evolutionary purpose to dreaming. We probably dream so that we can mentally prepare ourselves for different situations: like ones where we’re being chased, or where we interact with certain people in certain ways. The idea is that a person who has dreamed of being chased might be better prepared for a real chase, so would stand a better chance of surviving.
Cats similarly would need to prepare and practise for certain situations like hunting, which is borne out in that most cat dreams seem to be about chasing things, hence why their legs twitch. They might also dream about fighting for similar reasons.
When you think about it, we assume that other people dream even though we can’t see direct evidence of it. You can’t watch another person’s dreams; you can just rationally assume that they dream based on the available evidence (other people are mammals like you, and display the same signs of dreaming as you do when you’re asleep).
Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (And Other Stages)
Dreaming happens during a specific phase of the sleep cycle.
There are two core phases of sleep: slow wave sleep and REM sleep. REM stands for ‘rapid eye movement’, and it’s obvious why it’s called that if you ever see someone in this stage: the person’s eyes roll around behind their eyelids as if they’re looking around. Sleep begins by moving quickly into slow wave sleep (which is called what it’s called because of the patterns of brain activity during this stage).
There are several levels of SWS, as it’s also known, which the person goes through in succession during roughly the first half of the night. They then enter REM sleep. It’s during REM sleep that dreams occur, something which is backed up both by personal experience and scientific study. There are several periods of REM sleep throughout the night, but they mostly occur towards the end of the sleep period.
Cats go through REM sleep like we do. All mammals have the same sleep patterns as we do, which can be determined both by observing them and putting them through scientific experiments. A cat’s eyes will move around in its sockets while it’s in this sleep phase, and it will twitch like a dreaming person will. A cat’s brain activity will also be similar to ours (and there’s more on that in a moment).
Brain Activity in The Same Areas of The Brain
Another clue is that cats display brain activity during sleep in the same parts of the brain as we do when we dream. This would indicate that the process of dreaming is much the same in cats as it is in us.
One core part of the brain in regards to dreaming is the amygdala. This is part of the limbic system, and is located in the mid-brain, which both cats and people have. The amygdala regulates both fears and emotions, and is highly active during dreams. When you scan a cat’s brain during sleep, this area lights up, indicating that it’s active. This ties in with what we understand about dreams, i.e. that they are a way of understanding the world around us and figuring out what to do in potentially dangerous situations.
Another part of the brain that becomes active during sleep is that involved in the senses of sight, sound and smell. These light up as if stimulated by things in the real world. Again, cats display activity here during sleep, indicating that they are ‘using their senses’ in their dreams.
How Can You Tell When a Cat Is Dreaming?
You can easily tell when a cat is dreaming. While they do have a different sleep schedule to humans—cats take shorter sleeps throughout the day for a longer overall period of sleep than we do—they can dream each time they take a nap. There are times when the cat is still and seems to be in deep sleep, and others when it’s obvious that they’re having a dream. Let’s see how you can tell…
Rapid Eye Movements
Cats experience rapid eye movement during sleep just like we do. If you’ve never seen this in action, the name is an accurate description of what it looks like: the eyes quickly dart from one direction to the other. There may be fits and starts of a few seconds time when the eyes move, interspersed with periods where they don’t. Or, the eyes might move almost continually.
However precisely your cat moves its eyes, its eyes will move. You can see them under your cat’s eyelids moving around. Your cat may also not close its eyes completely as it sleeps, which is normally, in which case you can see the eye itself moving. Eye movement will only occur if your cat is in REM sleep, not in deep sleep (dreamless sleep) or if it’s awake (as, if it was, it would open its eyelids to look around when moving its eyes).
Twitching Body Movements
Twitching movements often accompany eye movements during REM sleep/dreaming sleep. You will notice your cat’s legs twitching and kicking as if it’s trying to run. You may also notice its jaw moving as if it’s killing or eating prey. These movements suggest that your cat is dreaming about either hunting or fighting, which are likely to be the main things that cats dream about!
Do Cats Have Nightmares?
It makes sense that since cats can have dreams, they can have nightmares too. Nightmares are dreams about bad situations, and any cat that has experienced trauma or mistreatment—or any that’s continually nervous and unhappy—will probably have nightmares about them.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell for sure. It’s not possible to tell from monitoring brain activity what a dream is about, just that dreaming is occurring. Some owners report seeing their cats wake up and seeming afraid, nervous or unhappy. This doesn’t count as real empirical evidence, but if many experienced cat owners think the same thing, it’s likely true, or at least a possibility.