What Do Cats Dream About?

Cat sleeping on bed

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Cats are really, really good at sleeping. They sleep more than most mammals and twice as much as humans, typically sleeping about 12 to 18 hours every day.

With all that shuteye probably comes a good deal of dreaming. It's a little easier to study human dreaming: If you want to know what people dream about, you ask them. But because you can't ask animals and expect to get a response, the science is a little iffier.

Here's what we know—and what we think we know—about cats, sleep, and dreams.

Cat Sleep Behavior

Like us, cats have rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when most dreaming occurs. During REM sleep, heart rate and breathing gets faster and eyes move about quickly in different directions.

In the 1960s, sleep researcher Michel Jouvet studied the biology of REM sleep in cats through experiments that made the cats' REM activity more visible. When REM began, instead of just lying there, the cats acted aggressively—arching their backs, pouncing and hissing as they stalked around the room. They acted as if they were looking for prey.

Veterinary neurologist Adrian Morrison, who wrote a review of this research in the 90s, says cats in REM sleep also will move their heads as if they are following or watching something. The research suggests that cats dream of being on the hunt, rather than merely lazily watching the world go by.

Do Cats Dream About Us?

Woman holding cat

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When they close their eyes, it's likely that cats have dreams that are a lot like ours. We dream about our everyday lives and they dream about theirs. We just have different life experiences.

"Humans dream about the same things they’re interested in by day, though more visually and less logically. There's no reason to think animals are any different," Dr. Deirdre Barrett, who is a teacher and a clinical and evolutionary psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told People.

If you have a dog, you may have warm, fuzzy dreams about walking or playing fetch with your pet, and those dreams may be reciprocated.

"Since dogs are generally extremely attached to their human owners, it's likely your dog is dreaming of your face, your smell and of pleasing or annoying you," Barrett says.

Cats likely dream of their humans too, but possibly they fantasize more about annoying them (or getting more food from them) than pleasing them.

Cats Fall Asleep Quickly

Cat asleep on pillow

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Another factor that plays into what your cat is dreaming about is when and how often the cat is asleep. If it seems like your cat is always a second away from a catnap, that's because she is.

"Cats seem never to venture very far from sleep. Though they might be fully roused one moment, engaging in passionate play or serious stalking, cats seem able to slide effortlessly back into rest and sleep the next," University of Arizona's Center for Integrative Medicine clinical psychologist Rubin Naiman, Ph.D. wrote on HuffPost.

Cats are crepuscular, Naiman says, meaning they are most active and awake during twilight at dusk and dawn. The rest of the day and night, they are in a hazy land of sleep-wake.

"Cats reside in the boundary between night and day—between waking and sleep. In fact, cats challenge the commonly held notion that it's impossible to be simultaneously asleep and awake," Naiman says. "Not only are they able to sleep while sitting up, their sense of smell and hearing can remain active during most of their sleep."

So your cat may be dreaming while sitting up, half awake. That's talent.

Do Cats Have Nightmares?

You may see your cat sleeping peacefully and then he suddenly twitches uncontrollably with paws zipping about in what looks like general discomfort. There's a chance he's having a nightmare, or just reliving a negative event from the day. There's also a good chance it's just the typical muscle twitching that goes along with REM.

Even if you feel like your cat is having a bad dream, it's probably not a great idea to wake him up. He may be so startled that he could wake up with claws and teeth flying.

It's better to let a sleeping cat lie.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Should you wake your cat if it's twitching?

    You should never wake a cat if it's twitching in its sleep because twitching occurs during deep sleep, and deep sleep is essential for cats' (and all animals') health and wellbeing.

  • Why do cats sleep all the time?

    Cats sleep between 13 and 16 hours per day—and it's not just because they're lazy. Their sleeping schedules are a result of centuries of evolution. Wild cats need that amount of sleep to conserve energy for hunting.

  • Can cats become diurnal?

    Cats are crepuscular, meaning they're most active at dawn and dusk. They aren't diurnal and cannot become diurnal. Their crepuscular nature is genetically inherited from wild cats.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.

View Article Sources
  1. Sordo, Lorena, et al. "Prevalence of Disease and Age-Related Behavioural Changes in Cats: Past and Present." Veterinary Sciences. 2020.

  2. Jouvet, Michael. "Behavioural and EEG Effects of Paradoxical Sleep Deprivation in the Cat." Excerpta Medica International Congress Series No.87: Proceedings of the XXIIIrd International Congress of Physiological Sciences. 1965.

  3. Morrison, Adrian A. "Mechanisms underlying oneiric behaviour released in REM sleep by pontine lesions in cats." Journal of Sleep Research. 1993.