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Can Cats Have Nightmares or Bad Dreams? Vet-Reviewed Info

Written by: Dean Eby

Last Updated on April 2, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

cat sleeping on its condo

Can Cats Have Nightmares or Bad Dreams? Vet-Reviewed Info


Dr. Maja Platisa Photo


Dr. Maja Platisa

DVM MRCVS (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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You’ve likely been relaxing on the couch or maybe using your laptop on the sofa with your cat lying beside you, sleeping comfortably. Suddenly, your cat’s legs may start moving or twitching, or maybe their ears flicker. You start wondering what exactly is going on with your cat! Is something wrong? Should you be worried? Is your cat having a nightmare?

This is actually a rather common phenomenon that almost all pet owners experience, not just cat owners. Thankfully, your feline friend is just fine, and there’s generally no cause for worry when you see this behavior. It’s just your cat experiencing the REM stage of sleep!

We don’t know for sure what cats dream about, so we can only guess if they can have nightmares. But there is no research to say they don’t, so we’ll just have to go with assumptions for now, until further scientific evidence becomes available.

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Body twitches during sleep are normal and have to be differentiated from twitches in the awake state. If your cat is not sleeping but is experiencing intermittent facial twitches or abnormal body movements, such as paddling with their legs, this may be seizure-like activity. If in doubt, record a video of your cat’s behavior and seek veterinary attention.

How Do We Know Cats Can Dream?

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke explains that there are two basic types of sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep, which is further subdivided into three stages.1 Each is related to specific brain waves and neuronal activity and is exhibited differently when heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and body and eye movement is monitored. When you sleep, you go through all stages of non-REM and REM sleep several times.

Researchers are always looking for the next interesting thing to study, and it turns out that cat dreams have been studied for a long time. The study that first introduced us to the reality of cat dreams was performed way back in the early 1960s by Michel Jouvet. He determined that cats enter a dreamland state that seems quite similar to humans, and it happens when they’re in the REM stage of sleep.

cat sleeping
Image Credit: KatinkavomWolfenmond, Pixabay

Signs Your Cat Is Dreaming

If you believe your cat is dreaming, you should avoid waking them up. Your cat could wake up in a startled and confused state, which may lead them to bite or scratch you before they’re fully aware of their reaction. But how can you know when your cat is dreaming?

The following signs while your cat is sleeping can all indicate that your cat is currently in a dream-like state:
  • Thumping tail
  • Rapid breathing
  • Crying or making other vocal noises
  • Limbs twitching
  • Twitching of the face
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Mammals & REM Sleep

It has been shown that some dreaming may also be present during non-REM sleep, and it’s suggested by some studies that all mammals have the potential to experience some degree of dream mentation.2 However, this will greatly depend on the definition on dream and whether non-REM dreams are still accepted as dreams or if only those mental representations that occur during REM sleep should be considered dreams.

The brain acts very similarly during REM sleep as it does when it’s awake. However, you don’t usually move because your body is in a paralyzed-like state during this stage of sleep.
Though humans get a lot of REM sleep, many animals get more than we do. Platypuses, for instance, get more sleep than any other animal! They often spend as much as 8 hours each day in REM sleep.3

Cat sleeping
Image by: photochur, Pixabay

What Do Cats Dream About?

Humans dream about all sorts of things, and dreams can often seem like random assortments of events with no real plot. But what do cats dream about? It’s a question that many cat owners consider, especially when they see their cat twitching and vocalizing in a dream.

Researchers have provided us with a small window into the mind of cats during dreams. Once again, it’s Michel Jouvet who came by this knowledge, but it wasn’t easy to come across, as unfortunately, it was based on experiments conducted on animals during the late 1960s. During his research, they removed part of the brainstem that prevented cats from moving while in a dream. With it removed, the cats’ bodies would move while they were still asleep, allowing Jouvet’s team to determine what they may have been dreaming about.

In some cases, cats have shown fierce body movements, even indicating pursuit that lasted 1 or 2 minutes. As grateful as we can be for having this knowledge today, it’s important to also acknowledge that methods by which it was attained are no longer considered acceptable or ethical when it comes to animal welfare.

Do Cats Have Bad Dreams?

While we know that cats can dream, we aren’t as positive about bad dreams and nightmares. Still, the anecdotal reports from some cat owners may suggest a yes, but we cannot really know for sure. Many times, when cats awake from particularly active dreams where they were moving around a lot in the real world, they may seem more startled or confused, leading many to conclude that they were experiencing a nightmare. But we are probably never going to know what goes on in a cat’s dream.

But what would a cat have nightmares about? It’s hypothesized that they could be dreaming about chasing prey, fighting with another cat, being chased, or of falling after missing a leap, perhaps even reliving a time that truly happened. This doesn’t seem so different from what humans have nightmares about. Falling is one of the most common nightmares that humans experience. It’s unlikely that their dreams are any more complex than that.

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You’ll probably never be able to understand your cat’s dreams from their point of view. Still, we can speculate on what cats are dreaming about, thanks to the extensive work done by scientific researchers on the subject. When your cat is sleeping but still twitching, kicking, vocalizing, or displaying other strange signs, it’s likely that your cat is just dreaming, so don’t wake them up because they might scratch you or bite you if they get startled, and it will be your own fault!

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Featured Image Credit: Roy Buri, Pixabay

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