Posted on May 15, 2016
Do Dogs Dream?
Whether or not dogs dream isn’t known with scientific certainty, but it sure is difficult to imagine that they don’t. We’ve all watched our dogs demonstrate behaviors in their sleep that resemble what they do in a fully awake state. Paddling legs, whining, growling, wagging tails, chomping jowls, and twitching noses inspire us to wonder what our dogs are dreaming about.
What we know about dogs and dreams
While our knowledge on this topic is very limited, the following known information helps us believe that dogs do indeed experience dreams.
- Professors of neuroscience, Matthew Wilson, and Kenway Louie, study the relationships between memory, sleep, and dreams. They’ve learned that when rats are trained to run along a circular track for food rewards, their brains create a distinctive firing pattern of neurons (brain cells). The researchers also conducted brain monitoring while the rats were sleeping. Low and behold, the same signature brain activity pattern associated with running occurs whether rats are awake or asleep. In fact, the memories play at approximately the same speed during sleep as when the rats are awake.
Can we take the information that is known about dreaming in rats and humans and apply it to dogs? Wilson believes that we can. He has stated, “My guess is — unless there is something special about rats and humans — that cats and dogs are doing exactly the same thing.”
- It is known that the hippocampus, the portion of the brain that collects and stores memories, is wired much the same way in all mammals. According to Professor Wilson, “If you compared a hippocampus in a rat to a dog; in a cat to a human, they contain all of the same pieces.” He believes that as dogs sleep, images of past events replay in their minds, much the same way people recall experiences while dreaming.
- It is known that in people most dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Dogs also experience periods of REM sleep, during which their breathing becomes more irregular and shallow. There may be muscle twitching during REM and, when one looks closely, rapid eye movements behind closed eyelids can often be observed. It is during REM sleep that behaviors thought to be associated with dreaming (legs paddling, twitching, vocalizing, etc.) are most commonly observed.
What we want to believe about dog dreams
When we observe our dogs as they sleep, it’s just about impossible to imagine that they are not dreaming. Just like the rats studied by Wilson and Louie, it is tempting to believe that our four-legged best buddies are reenacting their recent experiences; playing at the dog park, sniffing in the woods, chewing on a treasured bone, and chasing squirrels.
Sigmund Freud theorized that dreaming is a “safety valve” for our unconscious desires. Perhaps he is correct, and, when our dogs sleep, they dream about catching the neighbor’s pesky cat, continuous belly rubs in conjunction with unlimited dog treats, and stealing the Thanksgiving Day turkey from the dining room table.
What do you think your dog dreams about?
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.