What Do Cats Dream About?

Pet parents are well-versed in how much sleep cats need to get through their busy days of playing and eating. But do cats dream while they're snuggled up in bed? You can't help but wonder if your cat dreams while she's asleep, and whether or not she has visions of toy mice dancing in her head.

Do Cats Dream?

Dreams have long captivated people. Dating back to the ancient Greeks, great thinkers have ruminated on the dream state of humans and animals, but it wasn't until the 1950s, when researchers discovered and identified the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep state in humans. REM sleep, the final stage of the sleep, happens about ninety minutes after you first fall asleep and lasts anywhere between ten minutes and an hour. Because people run through more than one cycle while asleep, REM can occur multiple times. It is in this stage that the most vivid dreams occur because it is when the mind is most active.

Black and white cat sleeping with front paws out frontAlthough there is empirical evidence that people dream during REM, the answer to why we dream is not so clear. According to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, "While some of the signals sent to the cortex during sleep are important for learning and memory, some signals seem to be random. It is these random signals that may form the basis for a 'story' that the brain's cortex tries to interpret or find meaning in, resulting in dreaming." You probably know from experience that dreams can be quite bizarre and difficult to interpret. That's the REM state.

People aren't the only mammals that experience REM sleep. In the 1960s, scientists confirmed that cats also enter the REM stage while snoozing. "As in humans," writes John Cline, a clinical psychologist, and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine writers for Psychology Today, "cats in REM sleep show a low voltage EEG [electroencephalogram, a test that determines electrical activity in the brain] with characteristic eye movements. There is also a loss of muscle tone (atonia), presumably to prevent acting out of the dream content." If you've ever watched your kitty's eyes flutter while she's napping, you've seen her in the REM state.

Evidence of REM sleep doesn't "absolutely indicate" that a cat dreams in the same way as humans, says Cline. Since cats can't speak for themselves, we have no way of knowing how similar their experiences might be to ours. However, the physical evidence presented — particularly the relaxed muscle state (sometimes bordering on temporary paralysis) of atonia — while your cat is dozing certainly indicates that something's going on in her kitty imagination.

Pet Sounds

It is a truth universally acknowledged that cats like to sleep — approximately twelve to sixteen hours each day, to be exact.

If she's in the mood for a cat nap, your kitty will plop down wherever she pleases, such as on your lap (or laptop, if she wants your attention) or a cozy spot in the sun. She depends on these quick snoozes to re-energize and regroup for another round of feeding and playtime.

When pet parents get to know the napping habits of their furry friends, they discover pretty quickly that kitties are not always quiet creatures while in a deep sleep. A cat will twitch, stretch, snore and emit odd noises while in dreamland. Sound familiar? These physical movements associated with REM sleep in cats are similar to the way humans behave while dreaming.

In 1959, French neuroscientist Michel Jouvet conducted research on cats that lacked the "mechanism" for atonia. Jouvet "altered cat brains to disable the mechanism that inhibits movement during REM sleep," writes Liz Langley for National Geographic. The cats slept quietly during non-REM sleep, then upon entering REM "the sleeping cats raised their heads, suggesting they were watching unseen objects; arched their backs; and appeared to stalk prey and get in fights." What does this mean for cat dreams? While Jouvet didn't prove what cats dream about, he concluded that kitties whose movement was impeded still reacted physically to images that appeared during REM, thus indicating a dream state.

tortoise cat sleeping on a rugAs noted by Jason G. Goldman in an article for BBC Future, in addition to studying animals' physical responses during a dream state, "researchers can now humanely peer into the electrical and chemical activities of brain cells in animals while they sleep." In their 2007 experiment, Kenway Louise and Matthew Wilson, scientists at MIT, mapped the brain cells in the hippocampus (the center of emotion and memory) of mice while the critters were awake and running around their mazes and then while the mice were asleep.

"Louise and Wilson discovered identical patterns of firing during running and during REM. In other words," asserts Goldman, "it was as if the rats were running the maze in their minds while they were snoozing. The results were so clear that the researchers could infer the rats' precise location within their mental dream mazes and map them to actual spots within the actual maze." These findings support the very distinct possibility that many animals do indeed experience realistic dreams.

What Do Cats Dream About?

It's pretty much impossible to identify the content of a cat's dream since we can't directly communicate with our feline friends.

Dr. Adrian R. Morrison at the Laboratories of Anatomy School of Veterinary Medicine and Institute of Neurological Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, lead researcher on a study published by the Journal of Sleep Research, points out that we barely know what cats are thinking while they're awake, let alone when they're dreaming.

Because cats don't keep a dream journal, pet parents will never know for sure what images, thoughts, sensations, or contemplations are running through their fur babies' minds during slumber.

Perhaps your cat dreams about what food she'll be having for dinner, or that she's chasing her favorite toy, or maybe she's even dreaming of her favorite thing of all: you.

Photo by Jon Brinn / CC BY 2.0

Photo by nteee / CC BY-SA 2.0

Contributor Bio

Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.

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