What’s Behind Those Twitching Whiskers? The Mysterious Dreams of Cats


Cats experience complex dreams while sleeping, much like humans do. During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, cats can have vivid dreams that involve sequences of events that they are later able to remember and potentially recognize [1]. This suggests that cats, like humans, have the cognitive capacity for dreaming and complex thought processes while asleep.

REM Sleep in Cats

Cats experience two main sleep cycles like humans: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep [1]. During REM sleep, a cat’s eyes will move rapidly under their eyelids and their brains show high levels of activity. This is the stage when vivid dreaming most likely occurs.

Cats alternate between non-REM and REM sleep throughout their overall sleep period. Non-REM sleep lasts longer, while REM cycles only make up 10-30% of overall sleep. But cats may experience several REM cycles per day. Each REM cycle can last from 10-30 minutes [2].

During REM sleep a cat’s muscles become immobile and relaxed, apart from their eye movements. Their breathing and heart rate also increase. Their brains show theta waves, which indicate active dreams and imagery [3]. All of these signs point to complex dream states occurring during feline REM sleep.

Cats Act Out Dreams

It’s common to see cats moving their paws, twitching their tails, ears or whiskers, vocalizing, or even changing positions while asleep. This is because cats act out their dreams like humans do. Purina states that when in REM sleep, a cat’s brain is active and sends signals to the muscles as if the cat is actually awake and moving around. Just as dogs bark and move during sleep, cats can meow, run, jump, and attack imaginary prey while dreaming.

These dream-enactments are completely normal and not usually cause for concern. Kittens and high-energy cats may exhibit more vigorous dream activity than older or less active cats. While dreaming, a cat may cry out or twitch its legs as it imagines chasing mice. Some dreams may be so vivid that cats fall off beds or furniture as they play out an intense dream scenario. As long as these movements do not lead to injury, they are considered harmless manifestations of feline dreaming.

Dream Triggers

Just like humans, cats dream about things that have happened to them when they were awake. Their daytime experiences can shape and trigger their dreams at night. For example, cats that spend a lot of time looking out the window at birds and squirrels may end up dreaming about those sights and sounds (https://www.rover.com/blog/do-cats-dream/). An indoor cat that heard a dog barking during the day might dream about that sound at night.

Cats also dream about their owners and experiences with them. For instance, if a cat’s owner was playing with a cat toy like a feather wand, the cat may dream about playing with that toy. Or a cat that had a fun play session earlier in the day may act out that experience in their sleep. Anything a cat sees, hears, or does while awake could end up being dream fodder at night (https://www.purina.co.uk/articles/cats/behaviour/common-questions/do-cats-dream).

Dream Content

Research suggests that cats likely dream about recent activities and experiences, similar to humans. Since cats spend much of their time sleeping, hunting, and engaging in social interactions, these are some of the main themes that emerge during feline REM sleep.

Studies show the majority of cats’ dreams revolve around hunting prey or other daily routines like playing, exploring, meeting new cats, and interacting with their human owners. Cats also frequently dream about food in relation to hunting. Their dreams reflect their natural instincts and behaviors in waking life.

For example, sleeping cats may move their legs like they are chasing something or engage in suckling motions similar to nursing kittens. Vocalizations like meows or hisses indicate social dreams. Aggressive facial movements suggest conflict or hunting dreams. Overall, the content of cats’ dreams mirrors their most common experiences while awake.

Since outdoor cats spend more time actively hunting prey than indoor cats, some scientists believe outdoor cats likely have more vivid and intense dreams about hunting compared to indoor cats. However, indoor cats still exhibit hunting behaviors in their sleep as well.

Emotions in Dreams

Cats can exhibit various emotions during REM sleep when dreaming just like humans. According to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Katherine Houpt, cats can show emotions like fear, aggression, and pleasure in their dreams through physiological signs and movements 1. Much like humans reenact their dreams, cats may growl, move their paws, or show other behaviors that mirror the emotions and experiences of their dream content.

For example, a cat may hiss, swat, or act defensive during a dream if they are responding to a perceived threat. Or they may purr and knead if they are experiencing a pleasurable dream. Strong emotions like fear seem to be the most common, especially in younger kittens who are still gaining real world experience. But adult cats also clearly exhibit fear, aggression, and pleasure during REM sleep. So despite our inability to peer into feline dreams, the emotional responses provide clues to the inner experiences cats have when dreaming.

Kitten Dreams

Kittens spend much more time in REM sleep and tend to have more active dreams than adult cats. According to Dream Guide Me, kittens can spend up to 50% of their sleep in the REM stage. This is because REM sleep is critical for brain development in young animals. During REM sleep, kittens’ brains are busy forming neural connections and consolidating memories from their recent experiences.

All of this brain activity leads to very vivid dreaming in kittens. They often move their paws and whiskers, sometimes even letting out meows and purrs during REM sleep. It’s believed that kittens mainly dream about recent playing, exploring, and interacting with their littermates and mother. These motor-skill activities get reinforced in the kitten’s brain during dreaming. While we can’t know for sure, their dreams likely involve imaginary play fights, chasing, pouncing, and other play behaviors they practiced while awake.

Bad Dreams

It’s possible for cats to experience nightmares and bad dreams just like humans do. When in REM sleep, a cat’s muscles may twitch, their tail may move or flick, and they may jerk or jolt occasionally (Purina, 2023). These motions are thought to be physical manifestations of what the cat is dreaming about. Cats may even meow, growl, or hiss during a bad dream. Some owners report their cats suddenly waking up scared after a nightmare. While the exact content of feline nightmares is unknown, cats likely dream about things that frighten them or negative experiences they’ve had while awake.

It’s theorized cats may have nightmares about past traumas, like getting in a fight with another cat or having a bad visit to the vet. Loud noises, stress, changes in routine, and new or unfamiliar environments could also trigger bad dreams in cats. Kittens that are separated from their mother and littermates early on may be more prone to nightmares as well. Just like soothing a human after a bad dream, pet owners can comfort their cat after a nightmare by gently petting or holding them to help them calm down.

Lucid Dreaming?

Lucid dreaming is when someone is aware they are dreaming during the dream and can exert some control over the dream narrative [1]. While some humans are capable of lucid dreaming, there is no evidence that cats have this ability. Cats’ dreams seem to be completely involuntary experiences over which they have no control. Their brain activity during REM sleep does not indicate any self-awareness that they are dreaming. So while the term “lucid dreaming” sometimes gets applied loosely to cats, they lack the metacognition and ability to consciously influence their dreams that human lucid dreamers can exhibit. Cats appear fully immersed in the dream experience, without realizing it is not real.


In summary, dreams play an important role in cats’ mental health and ability to process experiences. Just like humans, REM sleep and dreaming allows cats to organize information, solidify memories, work through emotions, and release creativity. While we can only guess at what cats might dream about based on their behaviors and triggers, the research shows their night visions serve the same neurological purposes as human dreams. Dreams help kittens develop cognitively and allow cats of all ages to work through fears, stresses, and daily experiences. By respecting cats’ sleep and promoting healthy REM cycles, we can support their emotional wellbeing and mental development.

For more information, see: https://blog.catbandit.com/do-cats-twitch-when-they-dream/

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