Maybe you have experienced an episode where your furry friend suddenly gets up from a deep sleep, sits in the corner of your room and gives you a blank stare. You try to call his name, pet him, and even look in his eyes, but it seems like he is in another world. It can be frightening, and at this point you might start to wonder if your cat is sleepwalking.
Cats are notorious sleepers and most of us are probably jealous of their ability to slumber anytime, anywhere. And with that, we cannot help but wonder whether cats dream like humans do, or whether they ever experience sleepwalking like some of us do.
Let us put it briefly here: Cats do not sleepwalk like humans, and this article will explain why.
Cat sleep cycles
Unlike humans, cats spend a lot of hours sleeping because they inherently know the importance of recharging their energy levels. An average cat can sleep up to 15 hours each day, while older felines might spend around 20 hours a day in slumber. With such long hours of sleep, it is only normal to wonder if they ever dream, and whether they have the same sleep cycles as humans do.
Animal behavior experts reveal that felines, like us, also go through different stages of sleep. These are the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep stages. Most dreams, good or bad, happen during REM deep sleep. Your cat could dream about his hunting escapades or a traumatic experience from the past. Although the large muscles are mostly shut off at this time (to prevent your cat from enacting his dreams), you might still notice some movements like twitching, murmurs, and kicking of the legs.
And, since cats are born predators, they do not stay in deep sleep mode most of the time. In fact, your feline only spends 30% of his snooze time in deep sleep, while the other 70% is devoted to staying sufficiently alert that he can react to anything at a moment’s notice.
With several sleep cycles, our furry friends can dream about their daily activities and past experiences. Experts have also revealed that the human hippocampus, a part of the brain that governs memories, is wired exactly the same as that of almost all animals, including cats. Even the pattern of electrical activity during sleep is identical between cats and humans. So what does this information tell us? In a nutshell, it means that cats’ dreams do not differ a lot from ours.
Good dream vs bad dream
Sleep is an essential time for the brain to process information and memories. This is true for both humans and animals. The only difference is that, instead of dreaming about their careers, relationships, or troubles of the world, your kitty simply dreams about his day. That could be cuddling and playing with his favorite humans, or interacting with other animals.
Cats enjoying a pleasant dream will often appear relaxed, with an innocent smile on their faces. Their dreams could be made up of realistic events, like their owners petting them or finally catching that annoying rodent in the backyard. Other times, it could be a combination of weird, nonsensical images. Although there is no strong evidence to prove this phenomenon in cats, animal behavior experts strongly believe it to be the case.
And what about bad dreams? Yes – cats can also have nightmares. You may already have heard cat owners sharing stories of their pets’ odd behavior when having bad dreams. This might involve meowing, twitching, or jerking their legs as if they were running. At this time, it is best not to wake the cat up as this can be intrusive and put him in a defensive state. Furthermore, your cat will most likely bite or scratch you unintentionally.
So why do cats have bad dreams? Just like their human counterparts, our furry companions also need to process traumatic events during their sleep. It could be a fearful encounter with large animals outside the home, trauma from being hit by a car, or a memory of being lost in the street and away from his owners for a long time. And, when he wakes up, you might find your cat running to you for comfort while meowing and trembling in fear.
Sleepwalking, however, is an entirely different story. While sleepwalking can be common in humans (especially children), this phenomenon almost never happens to normal, healthy felines.
Cats do not normally sleepwalk
We have already mentioned that cats dream like humans do, with evidence including similar patterns of electrical signals occurring during sleep. But only humans experience sleepwalking. Why is that?
Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is a disorder in humans that involves walking around while in a deep sleep. This usually happens half an hour before entering the REM phase. Normally, a neurotransmitter known as GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is released during the REM state to prevent muscle movements while a person is dreaming. However, insufficient levels of GABA in the body can cause movements such as flexing or walking while asleep.
Cats, on the other hand, do not experience this. Although they might paw or twitch slightly during deep sleep, healthy felines do not sleepwalk like humans. The only instance where sleepwalking has been observed in cats is when they have suffered a form of brain damage.
A university professor in France, Dr. Michel Jouvet, conducted experiments in cats wherein he caused surgical lesions on the locus coeruleus of their brains. When awake, the brain-damaged cats exhibited normal behavior, but when they started sleeping and entered the REM cycle, these cats started to enact their dreams. The subjects would crouch low and act as if they were stalking prey. They might also play with their toys or search for food while in a deep sleep.
To sum it up, only brain-damaged cats might experience sleepwalking. This is quite rare and the only time this is likely to happen is in the laboratory. So, if you witness your cat suddenly get up from his sleep and stare blankly at you, then something else could be bothering him. A check-up at the vet should help to ensure that your kitty has a clean bill of health.
Cat sleep disorders you should know about
Like humans, sleep disorders can occur in cats (and other animals); these are known as narcolepsy and cataplexy. Narcolepsy is described as having an uncontrollable REM sleep phase. Cataplexy, on the other hand, occurs when the cat suddenly experiences paralysis or his eyes cannot follow movements but he remains conscious.
These conditions can be common in old age and can significantly impact your pet’s overall health. Feline symptoms might manifest as:
- Excessive tiredness
- Suddenly falling into a deep sleep while doing normal activities like eating, walking or climbing a tree
- Collapsing onto their side
Unfortunately, there is no cure for these disorders. Leaving your cat unattended if they suffer one of these conditions can be dangerous, especially if they are left near water.
The bottom line
Our furry companions do dream (both good and bad) like humans do, since their brains process memories in the same way. When your cat enters the REM sleep cycle, he might start having happy dreams or nightmares, causing his body to jerk slightly. However, cats do not sleepwalk, despite what some owners believe.
A healthy feline should be happy to spend as much time – or more – dreaming on your couch as he does playing outside. So, there is no need to worry if you see your furkid snoozing most of the time; this is perfectly normal. However, there are sleeping disorders that you need to watch out for. If you notice any changes in your cat’s sleeping routine, visit your vet right away to rule out any serious diseases.
Image: istockphoto.com / Boyloso