BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

What Do Cats Dream About: Do They Dream About Us?

kittens dreaming
Martha Harvey
Written by Martha Harvey

More often than not, you will find your beloved feline asleep in her favorite armchair. They sleep more than an average human or a dog—a staggering 16 to 18 hours a day! With this much nap time, there has got to be a lot of dreaming involved, right? So, what do cats dream about during their long naps?

Cats are very efficient hunters, and they follow the philosophy “work smarter, not harder.” It doesn’t take them a lot to find and catch prey, so what else is left to do but to cozy up and get some well-deserved rest? On the other hand, their wild instincts are still very sharp so not all their sleep is a deep, motionless slumber. Most of the time they are semi-alert in case an extra food opportunity comes their way, or a predator shows up.

Every cat owner has witnessed the “sleep chase”—twitching paws and shivering whiskers which are regular occurrences during these long sleeping sessions. We tend to think these are clues that can solve the mystery, but there is much more to the mechanics of a cat’s dreams.

In this article, we will tell you more about dreaming and sleep cycles in general, since this is something that applies to humans, cats, dogs, and other animals alike. Then we will tell you what we think cats are dreaming about based on scientific observations. Lastly, we’ll discuss how to make your cat’s nap time more comfortable.

Sleep Cycles and Dreams

Sleep state is still a field actively researched by scientists. It is truly a mysterious realm, and some functions are not entirely explained to this day.

Fortunately for humans, we can communicate about what we dream about, which helps us paint the picture in much more detail. Unfortunately, cats can’t tell us about that weird dream they had last night so we can’t know their mechanisms for sure.

What we do know is that feline brain functions mirror humans’ quite closely; their sleep patterns consist of non-REM and REM cycles that alternate during the sleeping period. Here is what we know about this phenomenon:

#1: REM Phases of Sleep

cat sleeping with opened eyes

Rapid eye movement is a phase that occurs during sleep in mammals and birds, which got its name from rapid movements of the eyes. During this phase, birds and mammals dream vividly, while muscle tone is low and there is practically no movement.

REM phase is physiologically very similar to the waking state, as proven by the EEG imaging of the brainwaves. REM sleep is very different in nature from the other phases of sleep (collectively referred to as non-REM sleep).

REM and non-REM sleep alternate in periodical cycles, but it has been noted that the longer the sleep state lasts, the higher proportion of REM sleep is measured. This is the phase of sleep when it’s hard to wake someone up.

But what does all this mean? It means that all of the coherent dreams happen in the REM phase. This is a very important evolutionary advantage because this is the time when we process and “experiment” with the experiences we had during the waking hours.

In other words, our brains retain the events, experiment with the “could have beens,” and learn from them. This is an amazing way to gain experience and reexamine the choices taken in the past while the body is resting.

But what does this mean for cats? Scientists have noticed that predators have much more frequent REM phases than prey animals. This is because predators’ brains will reexamine hunting events and process them in such a way that the next hunting spree turns out more successful.

Hunting is a game of skill that needs to be honed as much as possible. Prey animals don’t need to additionally process running away since it’s really not rocket science.

What is also interesting is that young animals, such as kittens, spend more time in dream (REM) phases of sleep, probably due to a heightened need to process the world around them. There is so much to memorize and learn about, but there is also a need for a lot of rest while growing, so a lot of dreaming makes perfect sense.

#2: Non-REM (NREM) Phases of Sleep

NREM phases are different from REM in the way that dreaming rarely occurs. If it does, the dream sequences are short and nonsensical. Muscles are not “paralyzed” anymore so in this stage a person can sleepwalk, sleep talk, and move. This is actually the phase your cat is in while twitching in her sleep.

#3: The Whole Sleep Cycle

gray cat sleeping

One full cycle includes both REM and NREM phase. One such cycle is around 22 minutes long in healthy, adult cats. Just for comparison, one such cycle is 90 minutes long for humans. This means that a cat’s dreams last a lot shorter than ours.

See Also: How Much Do Cats Sleep

What Do Cats Dream About?

Unfortunately, we can’t tell for sure. We know that they probably don’t dream about abstract concepts like humans do, but we can’t definitely say that cats don’t have weird dreams. After all, cats are inherently weird creatures.

What we can say is that they probably dream of regular, day to day cat business. Just like humans, they process stressful situations, emotional encounters, and daily activities. There might be a bit of a difference in perceiving stimuli, though, and this might be an interesting factor in understanding how and what they dream about.

Cats have a low visual acuity (in other words, they are very short-sighted), but have night vision. Furthermore, they are not nearly as dependent on their vision as humans are, meaning that their keen sense of smell and hearing might play a huge role in the way they dream.

They probably dream about smells and sounds much more than humans do. Try to remember the last time you dreamed about a smell. It just doesn’t play such a big role in our lives.

From what science tells us, we can draw a couple of conclusions:

#1: Cats Dream About Chasing Prey

black cat chasing prey

This is definitely in agreement with what we said earlier about predators and the frequency of REM phases. Cats are born hunters, no matter if they are outdoor vermin exterminators or indoor toy chasers. Whichever option is available, they will embrace it with enthusiasm. This affinity is probably reflected in their dreams, too.

Our brains, no matter the species, always strive to find paths that will take us to necessary achievements while spending the least possible amount of energy. Dreams come in handy here because the brain “plays” with possible outcomes of real-life situations while the body is resting, hence gaining knowledge in the idle mode and not wasting resources on countless trials and errors during waking hours.

For predators, this refers to hunting and chasing prey. Dreaming about hunting games is especially true for the indoor cats because playtime is the most exciting time of the day.

#2: Cats Dream About Running

white cat running in the field

Well, maybe not in the vivid dream stage, but they are definitely very into running during the NREM phase. Twitching, chirping, and moving whiskers are all common cat behaviors during this sleep phase.

#3: Cats Dream About Avoiding Threats

cat running from dog

Same as in the first point in this section, reliving some of the bad experiences is just as important to survival as calculating the best hunting moves. Remember that scary encounter with the neighbor’s dog? You can bet that your cat was dreaming about it over and over again until she dreamed about bravely chasing away the beast in a glorious battle.

Or maybe that time the fireworks scared the heck out of her and she smacked her head on the door? In her dreams, she probably figured out that next time she is definitely hiding in the bathroom, preferably in the laundry basket.

Dreaming about bad and scary experiences is a natural way of getting over them. It might not be very pleasant while it lasts, but it is healthy and helps emotional healing.

#4: Cats Dream About Food

cat having a lot of food

But really, who doesn’t? Dreaming about food or water is our organism’s way of saying that we need to get our behinds out of bed and go hunt ourselves a meal—or in the case of your fabulous furball, get up from the armchair and meow at you at the top of her lungs.

#5: Do Cats Dream About Humans?

petting a cat

As you have noticed, we never mentioned that cats dream about humans. That is not because we think they don’t, but since we have no direct evidence, every statement of that sort would be pure speculation.

Recently, some experiments have shown that dogs definitely dream about their owners because the levels of hormones, heartbeat rate, and other factors match the reaction they have to their owners while awake. Unfortunately, such experiments have not yet been conducted on cats.

On the other hand, there is a lot of cat owners who swear that their cats purr while sound asleep. We would like to think they are actually dreaming about petting sessions and snuggle times, and you can choose to think this too. After all, for most indoor cats, their owner is the center of the universe, so why wouldn’t they dream about their beloved humans?

See Also: How to Get Your Cat to Sleep with You

How to Make Your Cat’s Sleepy Time More Comfy

 

cat sleeeping in bed

In nature, small wild cats sleep in burrows, caves, or high up in the trees. These are all safe places that shelter cats from the predators or the elements. A cat that sleeps indoors has the same instincts, but different problems than her ancestors in the wild.

First, most apartments are small and packed with house appliances, so it is very hard to find a quiet, secluded place. Second, we don’t think about vertical spaces as much as the cats do. Even when we decide to install shelves and cupboards, we don’t like our cats patrolling all over them.

The third problem is that an indoor cat can almost never feel like she is out of reach. It doesn’t matter that she knows you would never harm her, but knowing that she is in a place where no one can reach her gives her that extra coziness.

Instincts are instincts, for better or for worse. This is particularly important for households where there are more than one pet or kids. The more animals or toddlers you have romping around, the bigger the need for secure and out of reach places for your cat.

Here are some suggestions to solve those problems and make your cat’s beauty sleep more relaxing:

  • Introduce a box. We have already studied the amazing love affair between cats and boxes in one of the previous articles. There are many benefits to making a box a permanent part of your interior. It helps your cat feel more relaxed, reduce stress, and go back to her wild roots. A nice, cozy box in a quiet corner of the apartment can be a huge benefit for your cat’s health and sleeping habits.

  • Install a cat shelf. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just a simple, wooden shelf from a local retail store will do. Just make sure it’s safely installed and that it’s not too narrow; you don’t want your sleeping beauty falling off of it.

  • Do not disturb the cat while she is sleeping. This is an especially important lesson for the kids. A cat that is woken up abruptly can get startled and think she is under attack. Scratches and bites are not a rare occurrence in such situations. Don’t lift your cat or move her while she is sleeping unless it is absolutely necessary.

Wrap Up

cats sleeping together

What do we know about the subject of feline dreams? No one can say for sure. We do know that their brains are much more similar to ours than we previously assumed. With all the research and knowledge we have accumulated, we can make solid assumptions, but that is as far as we can go for now.

In the end, don’t worry about it. Just snuggle up with your beloved kitty, take that quarter of the pillow she left for you, and go to the dreamland together. No matter what she is dreaming about, she is happy to wake up next to you.

What do you think your cat often dreams about? What are the signs that made you come to that conclusion? Share your opinions with us below! And don’t forget to check out our article on what does it mean when your cat sleeps on you.

About the author
Martha Harvey
Martha Harvey

Martha Harvey is a skilled veterinarian and a member of American Veterinary Medical Association from Greeley, Colorado. She has 20 years experience of working in Animal Hospital. Martha loves all of her patients, but her favorite one is the Russian Blue cat Stitch, who lives with her.

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