Do cats dream? Think Inception, for cats.
It’s late at night and while reading you look over at your cat. For a second the weird question goes through your mind, do cats dream? OK, so maybe it’s not a Christopher Nolan movie like Inception, but isn’t it amusing to picture that movie performed by cats? All jokes aside, let’s consider if and how cats dream.
Have you noticed when cats sleep, they make subtle movements with legs, paws, whiskers or even murmur or chatter a bit in the course of their sleep? It is very likely that they are reliving an experience they had in their wild imagination – dream. At the same time, no one can know for sure. That statement arises from pure logic. After all, how do we know that people dream? Well, we, as people, can talk. We can wake up and confirm that, indeed, we had a dream.
Cats, on the other hand, can’t talk to tell us anything. Fortunately, we can examine what happens to us during our dreams and then see whether it happens to cats and other animals who can’t talk. Let’s talk about possibilities and potential content of cats dreams.
Is it possible to know whether cats dream?
Humans and cats undergo very similar sleep patterns. When both species fall asleep, they undergo a series of light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep, after which we usually either wake up or start a new cycle. The largest difference is that a full cycle for us takes about 90 minutes; for cats, it takes only 22 minutes.
REM sleep stands for “rapid eye movement” sleep, named so because our eyeballs move rapidly during this phase. What else happens? Humans have dreams during REM sleep. So, because cats have REM sleep, too, this suggests that they must have dreams. Right?
That’s correct, to a degree. The consensus is that cats most likely do dream, or, to be more precise, that there isn’t a single reason to believe they don’t. After all, humans and cats are not that different—we are all mammals, we have similar internal organs, and our brains function alike. By the way, not only cats but all land mammals, all birds, and some reptiles experience REM sleep. Does this suggest that they all have dreams? Most likely, yes!
What do cats dream about?
Mice and fish, silly. OK, jokes aside, let’s try and crack the question. What do cats dream about, if anything? Obviously, if we cannot know for sure if cats dream, and guessing the topic of their dreams is even harder. We can’t assume that moving paws indicate a sleeping cat is dreaming about running. Our rapid eye movement during sleep doesn’t necessarily mean we’re having a dream about tennis, does it?
During REM stage, cats display an array of body movements that indicate of them dreaming. Cats dream of things that they have experienced previously, like during that day. As they slumber, they twitch their tail and whiskers, extend and retract their claws, raise their lip, and/or even start having nuance of murmuring or chattering. Just like humans, cats’ brain emits a substance to refrain them from vividly acting out the stories in their dream. However, it does not stop them from showing clues of them reliving a scenario or enacting an imaginary story.
In the non-REM stage, cats are in deep sleep. This means their body starts repairing itself where the energy level is being replenished, immune system bolstered and muscles and bones regenerated. Cats usually sleep for approximately 16 hours per day, so you may be able to catch them dreaming quite easily. With all the cues you observe from their subtle body movements, you may be able to construe what their dream is about.
Memories and dreams are complex, for us and furries.
The mechanics of dreams characterizes them as a thinking process with some regions of the brain deactivated, mostly those responsible for movements and consciousness. This suggests that paw movements and eye movements must be initiated by a mechanism different from one that’s associated with running. Thus, it must be a reflexive response to brain activity. Besides, we would otherwise observe a large variety of different movements during sleep. Yet we don’t, unless someone is sleepwalking, which is a neurological disorder. Guessing the topic of our pets’ sleep is also complicated because we cannot project our dreams on them, either. Our thinking process is subtly different from theirs.
We often dream about something we know, have experienced, that we want, or that we are afraid of. We also often dream about things we have thought about a few minutes before we fall asleep. But what about cats? Obviously, their minds aren’t preoccupied with serial killers or the political beliefs of our colleague’s grandmother. They also do not plan their future and probably aren’t wondering how the universe began. As it happens with hunters—not only people from your local hunters’ club but cats as well—they’re often thinking about hunting.
Modern pet cats also indulge in other activities, like playing, knocking glasses off tables, and boxing with the family dog. Cats likely think and dream about these and other activities. Besides differences in thinking, cats’ perception of the world around them is quite different from ours, and this also is a reason why we can’t project our experience onto them.
Let’s talk a little bit of neuroscience, it’s fun, I promise. When you see your cat twitching her whiskers and toes in her sleep it’s very likely she is revisiting that bowl of salmon she had for dinner or that backyard bird expedition from earlier in the day. Cats’ sleep patterns, just like ours, involve periods of dreaming and it turns out a cat’s dreams are not random.
As we know that chattering in cats is a sign of frustration when they spot a prey but are unable to reach it. Our cat may unveil that moment in its dream by lifting its upper lip to expose “their canines”, having intermittent chattering while slashing its tail side to side. If your cat is dreaming about prowling and pouncing on a prey, its tail may twitch, whiskers wiggle, eyes move suddenly behind their closed eyelids. The range of dreams cats can come about are limitless.