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


Cats experience complex dreams like humans do. Research shows that cats have active sleep cycles similar to humans, alternating between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep (Schredl, 2021). During REM sleep, the stage when dreaming occurs, cats’ brains show intense electrical activity just as human brains do.

Dreams are important for processing emotions and memories. According to psychologists, dreaming allows the brain to sort through experiences, reflect on memories, and deal with emotions or stressors (Schredl, 2021). This suggests cat dreams play a meaningful role as well.

The Sleep Cycle of Cats

Cats have a similar sleep cycle to humans, alternating between non-REM and REM sleep stages throughout the day and night. According to Sleep Foundation, cats have several polyphasic sleep periods amounting to 12-16 hours of sleep per day on average https://www.sleepfoundation.org/animals-and-sleep/how-much-do-cats-sleep. During REM sleep, cats experience vivid dreams just like humans do.

Cats have shorter periods of light non-REM sleep and longer periods of deeper non-REM sleep compared to humans. The REM stage, when most dreaming occurs, makes up about 10% of total sleep time for cats. This is similar to the percentage for humans. Just like humans, REM sleep is important for cats to process memories, stimuli and information gathered while awake.

Physical Signs of Dreaming

Cats often exhibit physical signs while dreaming that indicate they are in REM sleep. Some common signs to look for include:

  • Twitching whiskers – A cat’s whiskers may quiver or shake while dreaming.
  • Fluttering eyes – A cat’s eyes will move rapidly under their eyelids during REM sleep.
  • Twitching legs – A cat may make running motions with their legs while asleep.
  • Changes in breathing – A cat’s breathing may become more rapid, irregular, or labored during dreams.

These types of movements and behaviors are normal during feline REM sleep. While dreaming cats can look quite active, their muscles remain relaxed and they usually do not wake up. The twitches are thought to be connected to visual processing in the brain during dreams.




Cats Can Have Nightmares Too

Like humans, cats can experience fear and distress during sleep in the form of nightmares. These can be identified by signs of agitation like whimpering, crying, trembling, muscle twitching, and lashing tails. Cats may even wake up suddenly from a nightmare and seem disoriented or scared.

Nightmares in cats are often caused by stress, anxiety, sickness, or trauma. Changes to their environment, introducing new pets, loud noises, or negative experiences can trigger bad dreams. Older cats dealing with cognitive decline may also suffer more frequent nightmares. It’s important to comfort a cat gently when they wake from a bad dream to help relieve their stress.

Studies show cats likely dream about recent activities or experiences (https://www.thedodo.com/dodowell/do-cats-dream). So negative events during their waking hours can manifest as nightmares while sleeping. Providing a calm environment and positive interactions will lead to better quality sleep and less distressing dreams.

Dream Triggers

Like humans, cats’ dreams can be triggered by their experiences while awake. Sights, sounds, and smells during the day may show up later when kitty is asleep. Cats likely dream about interactions with their owners, other pets, prey animals, and anything else they encountered that day. Their dreams help process these episodic memories and reinforce learning.

According to https://www.rover.com/blog/do-cats-dream/, triggers for cat dreams often include:

  • Spending time with their human – Cats form strong social bonds and probably dream about their favorite people.
  • Hunting or being around prey animals – Cats are natural hunters and may dream about chasing mice, birds, etc.
  • New environments – Exploring new places while awake can spark curious dreams.
  • Meeting other animals – Interactions with dogs, other cats, etc. may show up in dreams.
  • Learning experiences – Dreams help reinforce new skills and information.

So experiences while awake become fodder for nighttime dreams, allowing cats to process memories, practice skills, and explore imaginatively.

Dream Content

Cats seem to dream about common activities from their waking lives. Studies show that during REM sleep, cats often move their legs and paws as if they are chasing prey or batting toys, suggesting they replay activities like hunting and playing in their dreams. Cats who explore new environments and meet new cats during the day may also process these novel experiences in their dreams at night.

According to a study conducted in the 1960s by sleep researcher Michel Jouvet, cats exhibited hunting behaviors during REM sleep like crouching, leaping, and moving their heads as if following imaginary prey (https://modkat.com/blogs/modkat-purrr/do-cats-dream). Another study similarly found cats made running, pouncing, and jumping movements in their sleep as they appeared to act out dream scenarios of catching mice or bugs (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0166223679901103). So evidence suggests cats dream of common routines like hunting, playing with catnip mice and feather toys, exploring outside, and other daily activities.

Benefits of Dreaming

There are several benefits to dreaming that scientists have identified in recent years. Two of the main benefits are memory consolidation and emotion regulation.

During sleep, the brain goes through memory consolidation, which moves short-term memories to long-term storage regions of the brain [1]. Dreaming plays an important role in this process, as it helps connect memories to other memories and experiences. This allows the brain to make new associations and file memories in an organized way. Cats likely experience this benefit as well given their similar brain structure to humans.

Another key benefit of dreaming is emotion regulation. When dreaming, the areas of the brain related to emotions are highly active. This is believed to help process emotions from waking experiences and reduce their intensity over time [2]. By dreaming about emotional experiences, cats can work through stresses and fears in a safe environment. This may lead to less anxious behaviors when awake.

How to Make Dreams Positive

There are some things you can do to help promote more positive dreams for your cat:

Provide enrichment while awake. Keeping your cat mentally and physically stimulated during their waking hours can lead to better quality sleep. Engage in interactive playtime, provide puzzle feeders and toys that challenge their natural hunting instincts, and make sure they have access to perches and scratching posts for exercising their climbing skills.

Make cats feel safe and secure. Cats are vulnerable when sleeping, so ensuring they have a comfortable place to sleep that feels safe can minimize anxiety that leads to nightmares. Place their bed in a quiet area away from loud noises and household chaos. Keep the area clean, cozy, and inviting.

Consider calming supplements or pheromones. Products like Feliway or calming treats with ingredients like tryptophan can reduce stress and promote relaxation. Talk to your vet to see if these options could benefit your cat.

With some care and effort, you can help set the stage for your cat to have happier, nightmare-free dreams.

When to See the Vet

If you notice any extreme behavioral changes or self-harm behaviors in your cat, it’s important to have them seen by a veterinarian. Some concerning signs to watch out for include:

  • Excessive vocalization or crying, especially at night
  • Aggressive behavior like biting or scratching
  • Hiding or isolating themselves from the family
  • Loss of appetite or refusal to eat
  • Excessive grooming or hair loss
  • Head pressing against walls or furniture
  • Pacing or restlessness

While an occasional nightmare is normal, if the troubling behaviors persist or worsen, a vet visit is warranted. The vet can examine your cat for any underlying medical conditions that could be causing the changes. Things like hypertension, cognitive dysfunction, or pain could lead to sleep disturbances. The vet may recommend medication, supplements, or behavior therapy to help manage the issue.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to your vet if you have any concerns about changes in your cat’s sleep or behavior. Left untreated, ongoing sleep issues and nightmares can impact their well-being. With some medical attention and care, it may be possible to get your feline’s sleep cycle back to normal.


Cats have complex dream lives like us. Their brains go through the same sleep cycles and stages, experiencing dreams and nightmares fueled by their experiences, memories, emotions, and sensations. While we can’t fully know a cat’s inner world, the signs of dreaming show they have an active subconscious life.

Dreams help cat health and development. REM sleep allows their minds to process experiences and solidify memories. The motions of dreaming may instill muscle memory for hunting and self-defense. For kittens, dreams aid growth and learning. While bad dreams may occur, we can help cats sleep better through social bonding, routine and stimulating their minds and bodies. Understanding your cat’s sleep gives insight into their needs for a happy, healthy life.

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