to sleep, perchance to dream: sleep habits in pets

Dr. Kim
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Aug 14 2013



To humans (especially those of us with young children), sleep is precious. Most of us long for nights with a full eight hours of sleep, but for many, that’s just not a reality. The alarm goes off, or a kid starts crying, and we wake (grumpily in my case), and glance over at the dog or cat, who seems blissfully unaware that the day has begun.


It seems our pets spend most of their lives sleeping. Whether on the couch, on the floor, or in your bed (or in your bed on your head!), our cats and dogs have the sleeping thing down pat!

Of course, our pet’s sleeping habits vary, depending on their age and lifestyle. But on average, dogs sleep about 13 or 14 hours a day and cats sleep up anywhere from 15 to 22 hours a day. Again, dogs with jobs, such as search and rescue or herding dogs, and outdoor cats will spend considerably less time sleeping than your average house dog or cat. And the very young and the very old will likely sleep a little more than average.

So, aside from the vast difference in the amount of time that our pets sleep, how does their sleep differ from ours? It turns out that our pets brains act much like ours do during sleep, with short wave sleep and REM sleep cycles. Our pet’s cycles are a little different, though, as they tend to nap on and off during the day, whereas we prefer marathon sleeping sessions overnight.

Cats are most active in the hours around dawn and dusk, so while it may seem like they sleep nearly 24 hours a day, the truth is that they are probably just awake while you are asleep. You may have already deduced this upon experiencing your cat pounce on your toes (surely it’s a blanket monster!) at four o’clock in the morning. During the day, your cat will take little naps in an upright position. This is a lighter sleep that allows him to react to noises or smells (like the sound of the can opener). From this position, he can spring up like he was never asleep. Deeper sleep comes when he curls up in his favorite spot. Even in this comfy bed, he will still cycle between deep sleep and dozing.

Both dogs and cats do dream during REM sleep, just as we do, and even kittens and puppies dream. Adorable videos abound of dreaming pets; most of them are running after imaginary prey and some pets even bark, meow, or howl during especially vivid dreams. It’s best to let pets sleep through their dreams, even if they seem in distress. Waking them in REM sleep can lead to confusion and accidental bites.

If your pet’s dreams seem unusually active, there could be an underlying reason. REM sleep behavior disorder occurs in both humans and pets and results in a variety of clinical signs. The part of the brain that is supposed to shut of muscle movement is affected, and dogs and cats with REM sleep behavior disorder can thrash violently, vocalize loudly, and even become aggressive during REM sleep. Speak to your veterinarian if this is the case in your house.

We’ve addressed whether or not your pets should be sleeping in the bed with you before, but as a reminder, this is never a good idea for young dogs and cats who benefit from the boundaries that separate sleeping quarters provide. Once your dog’s temperament becomes clear, you can think about whether you want to share your bed.

One final note about our senior pets. It is not uncommon for elderly dogs and cats to have disrupted sleep cycles, in turn causing a disruption in yours. Older pets may wake in the middle of the night, often for no apparent reason. Talk to your veterinarian about things you can do to ensure a good night’s sleep for all if this is the case.