Have you ever wondered why your cat suddenly makes odd sounds or jerks and twitches while sleeping?
That is because our furry friends can have dreams. It could be about their fantasies, needs, memories, or their day’s adventure. Experts believe that cats go through several stages of sleep and, just like us, start dreaming during the REM phase.
And, while it might be tempting to believe that a peacefully-sleeping cat could not possibly have nightmares, sad to say, cats may occasionally have night terrors as a result of painful events or tragic past experiences. They could also relate to a physical pain the cat is trying to hide from you. As a fur parent, it can be heartbreaking to see your furry friend distressed in his sleep.
Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to stop your cat from having bad dreams. But there are ways to help him slip back to reality where he is safe and loved by his family.
Do cats dream?
The simple answer is yes – cats do dream. It could be about a peaceful day, a frustrating rat hiding in your backyard, or a nightmare triggered by an ugly past event.
Just like humans, most animals enter the REM (rapid eye movement) phase during sleep. This is when the hippocampus, a part of the brain where memories are processed, starts to collect new information and discard that which is not essential.
It is during this REM cycle that your cat may start dreaming about the highlights of his day or re-enacting memories of playtime during his sleep.
Unfortunately, some of the information processed may relate to a tragic or painful past event. Every cat has a different life story. If yours is an adopted cat, it might be helpful to understand his past so you can determine the right ways to help him overcome his troubles.
Reasons that cats have bad dreams
If you hear your furry friend crying out in distress, swiping his claws, or moving his whiskers while sleeping, he may be reliving a traumatic event in his dream. Thankfully, nightmares help your anxious cat purge those negative experiences and move on the moment he wakes up.
Here are just some of the common reasons a cat can experience bad dreams:
1. Post-traumatic stress disorder
Cats that have survived several traumatic events in their lives will most likely experience repeated bad dreams. Have you recently adopted a feline from the shelter? Or found a feral cat on the street?
Your cat may have suffered living in a crowded shelter, lived with abusive owners, or been traumatized while living on the streets. Unfortunately, even if he is now living in a safe home with you, these past experiences may continue to haunt your cat and cause horrible nightmares.
2. Separation anxiety and abandonment
Just like dogs, felines develop a deep emotional connection with their owners. Abandonment by previous owners, or the death of an owner, can have a negative impact on your cat’s quality of sleep. Having bad dreams is somehow a way for your cat to deal with the fear of being left alone.
Separation anxiety is also something you might encounter if you have recently adopted an abandoned cat. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing you can do if your cat repeatedly recalls his sad experiences through his dreams. Try to help your cat overcome the trauma of loneliness by giving him love and reassurance after he wakes up from a nightmare.
3. Fearful experiences
Just like you, cats may be able to relive a previous frightening event when they enter the REM phase of the sleep cycle. These disturbing events may be grief over his previous owner, an accidental fall, being scolded or punished, not being fed well, sudden loud noises, and many others. These may not sound like a big deal for us, but for a highly sensitive creature like a cat, such events can be stressful.
4. Conflict with other animals
Your cat may also be traumatized after fighting with other animals. It could be a conflict with a neighboring cat or pup or aggression between him and his housemates.
Catfights are often a frustrating problem for owners who have more than one cat living under their roof. Conflicts or aggression among pets may be triggered in various ways, such as the arrival of a new cat or when same-sex felines compete during mating season. When fights break out, the inferior cat or the one who is always bullied could end up having frightening dreams.
If you notice your furry friend being bullied by other pets, you should step up to protect him from this abuse. The weaker cat is often the target of bullies, so be watchful of your pets’ behavior. Most importantly, you must act to stop the tension among your pets.
However, it can be more challenging to monitor bullying outside your home. Cats are territorial animals, so one way to prevent outside fights is to keep your yard secured from neighboring cats or dogs.
5. Physical pain caused by injuries or health problems
It is often difficult to know if your cat is in pain, especially older cats with health issues. During his waking hours, your feline may succeed in hiding his discomfort, but he might later dream about the suffering.
Monitoring your cat’s behavior is crucial for the early diagnosis of health problems. If you suspect your cat is frequently visited by nightmares due to pain, consider taking him to the vet to rule out any serious disease.
6. The cat’s age
Kittens generally go through more REM sleep phases because of their longer sleeping hours. This simply means that younger cats will likely have more dreams, including nightmares, than older cats. So, it is almost no surprise to see kittens twitching, stretching, or making squeaking noises when they sleep.
How to deal with cats having nightmares
If your cat seems terrified while sleeping, never try to wake him up.
Cats having nightmares cannot distinguish dreams from reality. They can become aggressive and will likely hurt or attack if you come too close. Sadly, there is almost nothing you can do to help a cat having a bad dream, except wait patiently until he is back in the present.
While your furry friend is asleep, he could hurt himself by falling from a sofa, window, or wherever he is perched. Watch from far away as he jerks or makes odd sounds, but never try to pet him at this moment. You may gently call him with a soothing voice to remind him that he is home safe and loved.
When your cat wakes up from a dream, try talking to him gently in a reassuring tone, such as, “It’s okay, baby,” to help him recover quickly and forget the frightening experience. When he is fully awake and back to his normal self, you can pet him or touch his nose. Your scent will spark an emotional connection in his brain and remind him of where he is.
If your cat sounds upset in his sleep, he is probably having a nightmare. Distressed vocalization and odd muscle movements during sleep could be signs of a frightened cat. Sadly, cats deal with their trauma through dreams and, no matter how upsetting it is to watch, there is almost nothing you can do with a cat who is terrified in his sleep.
The only way to help your cat with bad dreams is to leave him alone. Never try to wake a sleeping feline or you risk getting scratched or bitten. Let your anxious cat overcome his fear and come around naturally when he wakes up. Give him love and reassurance, and he should be able to move on from the frightful experience at his own pace.
Image: istockphoto.com / Maryviolet