Most dog owners don’t need scientific studies to tell them that their dog has the ability to dream. From their twitching paws to their irregular breathing and whining, it’s plain to see that something is going on inside your dog’s furry noggin while they sleep. But what do dogs dream about when they’re snuggled up in bed? Do they dream about chasing rabbits? Chowing down on their favorite, natural dog chews? Cuddling with you? Probably all of the above, according to researchers who’ve studied dogs and sleep. Although what kinds of dreams your pup may have is still up for debate, most scientists agree on one thing: Dreaming likely isn’t a uniquely human trait.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain because dogs can’t talk. However, we do know that animals’ brains appear to follow similar sleep states as ours do, cycling in and out of rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.
REM sleep plays an important role in human brain development, and scientists believe that it plays a similar role in animals. During REM sleep, brain activity increases to levels similar to when we’re awake, but our muscles are paralyzed to prevent us from acting out our dreams.
REM sleep is also the phase that is responsible for most of our dreams. In the 1950s, scientists discovered REM sleep and began studying it in animals shortly after. From birds and flies to dogs and cats, most of the animals that were studied also experienced REM sleep. Therefore, it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that animals experience something similar to human dreams.
Want to figure out when your dog is dreaming? It’s easy: Just watch your dog from the time they fall asleep. Considering that adult dogs sleep 10.8 hours a day on average, it shouldn’t be too difficult to catch them in the act. After about 20 minutes, your dog will enter REM sleep—the dreaming stage. You’ll know they’re in REM sleep when your dog’s breathing becomes shallow and irregular.
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So, what do dogs dream about? Good news: probably, you! Humans usually dream about things they’re interested in by day, and there’s no evidence to suggest that animals are any different. In a , researchers altered the brains of cats, disabling the mechanism that paralyzes their muscles during REM sleep. Instead of lying down while they slept, the cats arched their backs and stalked imaginary prey, giving the impression that they were dreaming about activities they did earlier in the day.
But while cats are probably dreaming about stalking mice and birds, experts say that dogs might be a different story . Since dogs tend to develop extremely close relationships with their owners, it’s more likely that they’re dreaming of licking your face, snuggling up with you on the couch, or playing some fetch in the backyard. Dog dreams may also vary by dog breed. In fact, some scientists theorize that dogs dream about breed-specific activities. For example, an Australian Shepherd is probably more likely to dream about chasing after a frisbee than, say, a Basset Hound.
If your dog appears to be having a bad dream, it can be tempting to wake them up. But the truth is, you’re probably better off not disturbing your furry friend’s slumber. Waking up a dog—particularly, one that’s old or anxious—from a state of deep sleep can startle them, making your normally gentle dog act in an aggressive manner—think biting the hand that nudged them awake. To avoid such a reaction, use your voice to gently rouse them from sleep. You can also comfort them with snuggles and perhaps their favorite dog chew.Browse Our Health-Conscious Dog Chews
Better yet, let them sleep through their bad dream. Unless you think your dog is having a seizure—in which case, you should contact your vet immediately—letting them get their 12 to 14 hours of shuteye is the best thing you can do for your dog. Don’t worry! They probably won’t remember the bad dream anyway!